This holiday season, an estimated one in 20 Americans will be grieving the loss of someone dear. And for some bereaved folks, the loss is so profound in their lives that they shudder at the thought of celebrating anything, especially a season that is supposed to be merry and jolly.

If you are dreading the upcoming holiday season because your loved one has died, please take a deep breath. Help is on the way. Know that your feelings are normal and there are a number of things you can do to ensure you and your family will get through the holidays in a loving, comforting, meaningful way.

CHOOSE RITUALS WISELY. First, decide which family rituals and customs feel right and which ones seem too painful. For instance, if the thought of engaging in all the traditional activities you’ve done for years seems too stressful, give yourself and your family permission to spend Christmas or Hanukah at the home of relatives or close friends. This might mean you drive across town or hop on a plane to a faraway destination. No matter. Just be sure to choose wisely. You’ll want to spend this first holiday with those who have been totally supportive of your grief journey, people who let you grieve in your own unique ways and on your own individual timetables. Don’t hesitate to call them and invite yourselves over. You know they will understand, and they will be grateful that you reached out to them, allowing them to nurture you during the most bittersweet holiday season you’ve ever experienced. Or, if you decide to stay home, consider inviting relatives, neighbors, or friends into your home. Their hugs and camaraderie will help shift the energy in your home from loss to enduring love.

AVOID THE WORD ‘SHOULD.’ In your own self-talk, be gentle with yourself. Most importantly, avoid using “should.” There are no “shoulds” when it comes to grieving, especially during the busy holiday season. This time of year can be the most difficult, triggering intense emotions for those who mourn. Instead of thinking, “I really should mail out my usual 100 holiday greeting cards,” say to yourself, “If I find the time and my heart is healed enough, I might send out some greeting cards.” Quite simply, just change any “I should…” phrases to something much less demanding of yourself, such as: “If I have time, I might…”

GIFTS FOR THE LOVED ONE. Since your loved one isn’t here to buy gifts for, decide as a family what charity you would like to support in their memory. For example, if dad was an animal lover, you might choose the local animal shelter or humane society. You and the kids and grandkids can go on a shopping spree to purchase items you know dogs and cats would love. Then plan a visit to the shelter where you can brighten the holidays for abandoned or orphaned pets. Or if dad was a veteran of the armed forces, you might purchase toys to donate to local bereaved families who have lost a loved one in Iraq. After you share your gifts with those in need, take time to talk with each other about dad and the ways he enriched the lives of others.

THE EMPTY CHAIR. At the Christmas or Hanukah dinner table, whether you are at home or visiting others, arrange for a place to be set for the person who has died. Everyone is feeling the impact of the empty chair, so why not take time to acknowledge this loss? While dinner is being prepared, ask each person to write down a fond memory. For young children, ask them to think about the person who has died and draw a picture. Place the writings/drawings on the table, next to each person’s plate. Once everyone is seated, take a few minutes to ask each person to read or display their special sentiment. The love notes can then be placed onto the empty dinner plate, helping to fill the void of the empty chair as you rekindle your love for your loved one – and for each other. 

GRIEF SUPPORT MEETINGS. If the emotional trauma of your loved one’s death seems too much to bear for you or any family member this holiday season, consider attending grief support meetings. Most hospices nationwide offer free bereavement meetings afternoons and evenings to anyone in the community who needs counseling. You can find a local hospice by visiting the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization website at

RECEIVE THE JOY. It’s okay to be happy and joyful during the holiday season, even when our hearts are aching with sadness. When we’re mourning, we sometimes feel guilty about laughing and having a good time. So give yourself – and your family – permission to experience those moments of joy. In so doing, you will be honoring the memory of your loved one in beautiful ways.

Can the holidays truly be happy when we are newly bereaved? Yes, if we remember to choose rituals wisely, avoid using “should” in our self-talk, find creative ways to buy gifts that help others, honor the reality of the empty chair, attend grief support meetings as needed, and decide to be open to the endless joys of the season. 

Karla Wheeler has been an expert in hospice care and grief support for more than twenty years. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Karla is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Company, dedicated to helping hospices provide compassionate care to terminally ill patients and their families. She is the author of several gentle grief support books and is a board member of the Open to Hope Foundation. Find more at


Karla Wheeler

For 20 years, Karla Wheeler has been an expert in hospice care and grief support - both personally and professionally. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Karla is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Company, an independent firm dedicated to helping hospices provide their compassionate care to terminally ill patients and their families. Her company publishes clinical newsletters for hospices to educate area doctors and nurses about the many advantages of referring patients to hospice. The periodical Quality of Life Matters® is now in its 11th year and is recommended as an educational resource by top medical organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Her firm also publishes a growing family of grief and other self-help books, including three written by Karla. Afterglow: Signs of Continued Love is a compilation of stories of comforting coincidences from those who grieve. Timmy’s Christmas Surprise and Heart-Shaped Pickles are popular resources for grieving children. Karla’s grief support columns have been published widely in newspapers via Scripps Howard News Service. Her articles about grief in the workplace have appeared in business/management newspapers, magazines, and newsletters across North America. Karla was a guest on the radio show, “Healing the Grieving Heart,” in October 2008, where she shared insights into hospice care in America. To hear her show with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley, go to the following link: Thanks to hospice, five members of Karla’s immediate family have been able to die with dignity and free of pain, including her 54-year-old husband, who was diagnosed with advanced cancer “out of the blue” in late 2006 and died a month later. Other loved ones who were blessed with hospice care include Karla’s mother, father, father-in-law, and grandmother. It was after her grandmother experienced what Karla calls “a beautiful death” in 1987 that Karla knew she would someday dedicate her journalism career to helping families understand that no one needs to die in pain - physically, emotionally or spiritually. Hospice professionals help to ease pain on all levels. Karla and her teenage daughter travel nationwide to speak about death, dying, hospice care, and grief. Jenny is the author of a teen-to-teen grief support book, Weird Is Normal When Teenagers Grieve, based on her experiences and observations following her father’s death when she was 14 years old.

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