A Grief Guide for the Holiday Season: How To Be as Merry as You Can Be

Happy fall and winter holidays, friends. I’m Sarah, and I am here to share my holiday grief guide with you.

grief guide

My dad died last spring, and the six-month anniversary of his absence coincides with the current holiday season. I am having a hard time getting my Buddy the Elf on thinking of everything we are going to miss this year, but my kids are just as excited and boisterous as usual.

My dad was great at holidays, thinking of ways to make them fun and buying weird and excellent gifts every year. I am still enjoying last year’s Instant Pot and wearable back massager (LOLz for days, but seriously, it’s so great and plugs into my car USB port if I have shoulder pain on the go, and I am in my forties, so sometimes I DO).

The best way to honor his memory is to have a holly jolly Thanksgiving/ Christmas/ Hanukkah/ New Year’s season, but that is much easier said than done. His birthday falls two days after Christmas, and the light-up necklaces he bought the kids at last year’s Zoo Lights outing are still hanging in my laundry room. His special day is marked on our calendars. He just delighted the kids with those trinkets as we walked together through the snowy zoo drinking hot chocolate that may have been laced with peppermint schnapps.  How can he not be here this year for all of the cooking, baking, eating, unwrapping, and toasting? And how are we supposed to do all of those merry things without him? Celebrating my own birthday just a couple of weeks after he died was bad enough, how in the world am I supposed to celebrate the most family-centered months of the year without my dad?

As you can probably tell, I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have come up with a holiday grief guide to share. Disclaimer: I am lucky enough to be new at this, so these are untested methods for the most part, although I have been doing most of those things on the regular to cope with the enormity of this loss. I am just kind of tossing some more tinsel on them for the holiday season.

Sarah’s Holiday Grief Guide

  1. You should probably stop counting calories. I am not saying you should fall off the healthy living wagon and start throwing sticks of butter in your morning coffee, but I do think an organizing theme of the holiday season while dealing with the loss of a loved one should be comfort and joy. And some of those warm happy feelings? You can definitely eat.
  2. Speaking of themes! Use them to guide your celebration efforts. You should pick a one-word theme or a short phrase for the season to help you focus your holiday spirit. I toyed with a few this year: comfort and joy, sparkle, and let it snow were all contenders. The one I settled on, though, is EXTRA. Does the dog need matching fam-jamas on Christmas morning? No. Will she like them? Also no. Is she getting them? YOU BETCHA because I am dialing my holidays way up this year. I am a huge proponent of “fake it til you make it,” so for me, an extra joyful/ sparkly/ snowy/ merry/ bright/ silent/ holy holiday season is a good idea. You might want to go in a quieter direction, and that’s okay because my next holiday grief guide tenet is
  3. Don’t judge your feelings. Feeling sad at your kiddo‘s winter chorus concert even though it’s the cutest darn thing in the universe? That’s OK—I completely understand. My dad was always the dad in the audience falling asleep and snoring (turns out he had sleep apnea for years—who knew? Everyone sitting next to him at school plays, that’s who), but I know I will miss him next to me in an uncomfortable folding chair while my kids are onstage belting out gratitude-themed songs or torturing their stringed instruments in a sweaty middle school gym even though he didn’t like to attend those events. Or, maybe the opposite happens, and you think you might be way too happy for someone slogging through a season of grief. That’s OK, too. Your missing loved one would probably adore your smile. Just feel what you are feeling, and hold space for those emotions, even if they’re incongruous.
  4. Do things differently. While traditions are important, they might also be making you feel even sadder. Mix it up this first year without your loved one, and see if a new celebration feels better. We’re not celebrating any of our fall and winter holidays, including my dad’s birthday, the way we did last year because I am not ready to deal with comparisons.
  5. Be present. The only way we can trick ourselves into thinking we get more time on this planet with the people we love right now is to savor the present moment and mindfully experience it. Light scented candles to help anchor yourself in your immediate circumstance. Bake your favorite cookies with your favorite people just because you want to, not because you’re supposed to. As you live your normal busy life in the run up to the big holidays this season, sit down for dinner with your kids or pass them bags of drive-thru burgers over your shoulder while you haul them from sportsball to tutoring to drama club, note the heft of the fork in your fingers or the wrapper in your hand. Look at how big they are, or how small. Remember how much you love them even if they’re driving you crazy. There’s nothing like the loss of one of the most important people in your life to remind you that the present moment is the only moment, you know?

Share your best tips with me, please

Like I said, I am lucky enough to be new at this, so I would love your holiday grief management tips. Tell me, how do you stay merry and bright with a grateful heart in the midst of your own sadness?

Sarah Jedd has a Ph.D. in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches and studies the rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. Sarah has 5 (F I V E) children: teens Harry and Jack, elementary schoolers Cooper and Dorothy, and sweet baby Minnie, born in August 2020. Sarah blogs about being a mom of many at harrytimes.com and overshares on IG as @sarahjedd. Sarah, her husband, and their kids live in Verona with the world's laziest dog.


  1. You have a good start, and yes it will be a long trip. I do not have any tips for you, sorry. I just loss my wife of 50 yrs (10/31/19) what I can say is the memories of a love help allot. I think of what this wonder lady gave me over the years. Thanks Giving & Christmas I will slowly work into, I will be with my son for both holidays. I think the shock that someone is truly gone, that is hard to believe this happened, will be with me for a long time. I have to rebuild my life now without her. Faith is one of the biggest tip, I can give, for when everything is said and done that is truly all that one has. One last thing, talk to people about your loss, it will help you to get on with your life. Sorry to tell you my problems. I hope my story helps. Lynn E. Evans

  2. I’m unfortunately pretty much a pro at this. For me, different was good. Particularly being in a novel environment, somewhere I had never been celebrating in a way I hadn’t before. Being in the same place doing the same thing made me just feel the losses even more deeply. I found the holidays more palatable if I was traveling or spending it with people who understand you’re hurting but include you in their family traditions. As others mentioned above, therapy helps, especially if there are any unresolved issues, and grief support groups or just hearing someone else’s grief story or life struggles seems to help make our own easier to cope with. A wise friend once said to me, if everyone put their problems in a pile in the middle of the room and you had to pick from that pile, more often than not, you’d pick the problems you came with rather than take someone else’s.


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