First Holiday After Losing a Loved One? 3 Ways to Make Coping a Little Easier

Photo: Getty Images/John Shepherd
The holidays are synonymous with family, be it the one you’re born into, or the one you make for yourself. It's meant to be a time of celebration, of joy, of sparkling things. Of gathering your people close. But if you’ve recently lost someone you love—a spouse, a close friend, a parent, another family member—you’re probably bracing yourself for the first holiday without them.

It can be a particularly taxing time, says Robin Goodman, PhD, executive director and program director of A Caring Hand. “You’re bombarded with everything,” she says. “You have this public onslaught of reminders of what you’ve lost, from Christmas cards to social media posts, and they’re coming up against your private feelings."

But while "the feelings you have don't just go away," with every revolution around the sun, Dr. Goodman says, “The reality is there is only one first."

What she means is there will only be one first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, and first birthday without your loved one. And that’s part of what adds to these feelings that might be bubbling up. “You don’t necessarily know how you’re going to feel, because you’ve never experienced it before—this is your first time,” Dr. Goodman says. “So a lot of the fear is anticipation.” Ahead, find ways to cope with these feelings.

1. Prepare a response

This anticipation can work in your favor. By imagining what the day might be like, you can prepare your reactions to certain scenarios. For example, Dr. Goodman says, you can figure out how you will respond to someone who asks how you’re holding up—something that’s bound to happen if it’s the first holiday since your loved one passed. There’s no perfect response, Dr. Goodman says, so you can tailor to what feels good for you. “But you can say something like, ‘I’m just trying to get through the day,’ or ‘I could use some distracting! What’s new with you?’” she offers.

2. Get away if you need to

There’s absolutely zero reason to try and strong-arm your feelings, Dr. Goodman says. “Instead, give yourself permission to cope the way that you need to." That could be excusing yourself to lie down for a bit, asking your sister to go for a walk with you, or leaving a gathering early if you’re feeling extremely overwhelmed.

“Giving yourself permission to do any of these things will likely calm you down and make it so you’re able to enjoy the day,” Dr. Goodman says. “Since you know that there’s an escape route, you’ll feel more secure.” You can even let the host know that you’re just going to take it an hour at a time. That way, you don’t need to feel guilty if you feel the need to leave."

3. Plan for after the holidays

Remember: The actual holiday is just one day. And the easiest way to cope with that one day? Plan for the days after it. “If you think, ‘After Thanksgiving, I’m going to start my Christmas shopping,’ or ‘I’m going to go to my spin class,’ you're already thinking that you’re going to get through this and that life will go on," says Dr. Goodman.

To cope with the loss of a friend, one writer took a "griefcation"—here's her story. And if you're going through a breakup—well, that's another type of grief. Here are expert tips to help manage that pain, both emotional and physical.

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