Being Present with Loneliness and Loss During the Holidays

In this excerpt from their book, You Can Heal Your Heart, coauthors David Kessler and Louise Hay address how grief after the loss of a loved one can be both sharpened and softened around the holidays.

Holidays are about togetherness. When you’ve lost someone special, your world loses its celebratory qualities. Holidays only magnify loss, since the sadness feels sadder and the loneliness goes deeper. Many people feel that they’re victims of their memories, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You can take control of how you remember your loved one, and you can take control of how you honor them on a holiday.

For some, it makes sense to ignore the holidays as if they didn’t exist. But for others, it makes sense to take control of them. You don’t have to do them the way you always have in the past. Simply going through the motions without any meaning might seem pointless—and the worst loneliness of all.

After Marie’s husband died, she and her daughters, like so many other families, tried to carry on. Luckily, Marie heeded her intuition and sensed when something wasn’t working. She also knew that grief needed space.

“Holidays were so important to us as a family,” she said, “and suddenly there was this huge void. Now every holiday is a bombardment, a hole that reminds us that he’s not here. We tried to re-create the holidays and thought we could carry on as usual, but we learned quickly that we couldn’t do it the way we did it before, not without my husband. It was just too hard and sad.

“The first Christmas we kind of glided through because we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this.’ On the second Christmas, we put up the tree, but it took us a week to hang the decorations. We needed time to grieve without trying to be happy. We were all still so sad. Then we came to a mutual agreement to take a break from Christmas for a couple of years. We decided that when we came back to it again, we would start a new tradition.”

Marie chose not to keep up the pretense of happiness when she and her children were mourning. She knew what was right for them, and she taught her daughters to honor their authentic feelings of not feeling celebratory. Marie even said that they actually felt closer by not doing the holidays. Then, after some healing time, Marie and her family were able to celebrate again, not the way they had before, but in new ways.

Instead of thinking, Let’s pretend this didn’t happen, Everything is fine, or We’re still going to have a great time even though we’re sad, she thought: We find joy in each other without any pressure to be any other way.


You may find it difficult not to acknowledge a holiday, but you also don’t want to pretend. You can integrate the loss into the holiday by giving it a time and place. Perhaps a prayer before dinner includes your loved one, or maybe you light a candle for him or her. A simple gesture of recognizing your loved one can reflect the everlasting love in your heart. Making time for your loss and acknowledging it is often a lot easier than resisting it.

You might think:

Even though this is our first Thanksgiving without our mother, we will say her name and remember her with love at our dinner table.

We light this candle in our sister’s name and send her love.

Let’s share a fond memory or a funny story about our loved one who lives on in our heart.

Your thinking may become negative, and you’ll probably feel sad. That is normal and human. You may miss your loved one every day. You might feel lonely. Just pay attention to the thoughts you’re holding and repeating. Repeating the negative ones can send you into a dark place that doesn’t honor your loved one or yourself.

Sometimes our loved one’s death may become linked to a certain holiday. Perhaps your husband died the day before Valentine’s Day or on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. You’ll never forget that he died right after Easter or that that was his last Passover. Maybe he died on New Year’s Eve or near the Fourth of July. From then on, these holidays will never be the same. Since holidays are markers, even if your loved one didn’t die near a particular one, you may still look back and think that was his last Thanksgiving or his last Christmas. Some individuals knew it was their last holiday, and some didn’t. Either way, a formerly joyous holiday is changed forever. The question is, does that day become a holiday that honors the memory of your loved one, or is it now just a recurring doomsday?

It’s completely natural to think that you may never enjoy the holidays again. They will certainly never be the same as they were. However, in time, most people are able to find new meaning in the traditions of the holiday spirit that grow as a testament to love instead of loss.

Holidays are clearly some of the roughest terrain you navigate after a loss, and you can handle them as the individual you are. What is truly important is being present for the love reflected in the loss.

This holiday, we honor the love more than the loss.

Holidays are part of the journey to be felt fully. You can focus on the love and memories that you shared. And ultimately, you get to choose the content of your holiday experience.

Try to invite positive words in your interpretations. Words can grind you down or polish you up. The pain from grief can wound you, but positive thinking and kindness can heal you.

We remember you with our sweetest love today.

David Kessler, a well-known expert on healing and loss, is coauthor with Louise Hay of You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death.

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