Surviving Grief at Christmas

December 21, 2019

An empty chair at the dinner table. A cherished ornament on the tree. A favourite carol played on the radio. While Christmas is a time for family and for remembering, it can also trigger immense sadness when a loved one is no longer present. The death of a spouse, parent, sibling, grandparent, child, friend, or other cherished person is hard enough without all the reminders and memories that come with the holidays.

At this time of year, our Kelowna funeral home often turns to A Not So Jolly Christmas, a booklet written by renowned grief expert, author, and Executive Director of the Centre for the Grief Journey, Dr. Bill Webster. He says Christmas can be a particularly heart-wrenching time for those experiencing a loss. However, it can also be a time for healing.

Here, we share Dr. Webster’s helpful hints on getting through the holidays, while feeling all of the emotions that come with loss.


A Not So Jolly Christmas

We put high expectations on Christmas as a season to be happy, but we often don’t recognize that for many people, it’s also a season to feel sad and alone.

All those feelings of pain and loss are not just about Christmas; they are about grief, Dr. Webster says.

“Grief expresses itself in many emotions: shock, numbness, confusion, lack of concentration, anxiety, panic, anger, guilt, fatigue, sadness, yearning, and others. What complicates the issue is that there is no standard pattern for grief,” he says.

Even months or years after a loss, a person can feel immeasurable grief at the slightest provocation, such as a Christmas tradition or memory.

“We may appear to be coping well after the death and seeming to have the situation under control; suddenly, out of nowhere comes an overwhelming sense of grief. Often the pain is more intense some months after the loss,” Dr. Webster says.

While Christmas can trigger these types of grief “attacks,” it’s important to note that those emotions can also teach you something about yourself and your life now.

“The grief that we experience around this Christmas season, if acknowledged and validated, can be a very helpful stage in the reconciliation of loss,” Dr. Webster says.


Coping at Christmas

Overwhelming at the best of times, Christmas can stifle a grieving person’s ability to handle even the most mundane tasks. Add shopping, baking, wrapping presents, and seasonal parties to the mix, and it’s often too much to be able to cope.

When it comes to surviving Christmas, one of the first steps, Dr. Webster says, is to figure out what you should do and compare it to what you feel able to do, and then find an acceptable balance.

Dr. Webster suggests trying some of these Christmas coping methods:

  • Reduce the pressure: Get someone else to cook and host Christmas dinner or plan a special day to go shopping with a friend, away from the crowds.
  • Re-evaluate traditions: Know your limits. Consider whether sending Christmas cards, putting up the tree or hosting the family dinner will help or hinder.
  • Re-define expectations: Know that you are responsible for your own happiness. Expecting friends or family to rescue you may lead to disappointment. “Act rather than react.” Resist the temptation to spend Christmas alone and try to take a break from your grief.
  • Re-live the memories: Don’t close yourself or your family off from remembering the life you and your loved one had together. Share a moment with something meaningful, such as lighting a candle in remembrance, placing flowers at your loved one’s gravesite, hanging his or her Christmas stocking on the mantel, or placing a photo of him or her as an ornament on the tree.


Helping Children with their Loss

In A Not So Jolly Christmas, Dr. Webster includes a section on how to help children cope with a loss. His most helpful advice is not to discourage their grief at Christmas.

The holidays can still be made special for them, but realize that children sense anxiety, fear, and grief and respond to it, so let them know that they are safe, loved, and not alone. Let them express their emotions, include them in your plans (memorials included), and give them a break by seeking something fun to do. And most importantly, be honest with them.

“Seeing you are honest and open about what has happened and how you are feeling and including them in the process, will reassure the child that things are going to get better,” Dr. Webster says.


Embrace the Spiritual

While December is typically a time to recognize Christian, Jewish, and other faith-based holidays, there are different ways that people who are grieving can embrace the spiritual aspect of Christmas.

Seek solace in knowing that you are not alone. Take time for yourself. Breathe. As Dr. Webster says, “Life will go on. Although it may not make you feel any better now, it is important to hold on to that hope. No matter what has shattered our hopes and broken our dreams or our hearts, we are not beyond repair.”


Springfield Funeral Home in Kelowna has helped many Okanagan families along their grief journeys. We offer an online grief resource library, GriefShare program, and other grief resources and welcome families and loved ones to visit our Kelowna location during December to visit our Tree of Memories, featuring the names of loved ones lost.


Dr. Bill Webster is a grief counsellor, author, TV host, and international speaker who brings a unique blend of personal experience, academic education, and many years of practical application to his work. Learn more about him and his work at