Holiday Tradition Grief: Acceptance and Coping

In a year full of surprises, we are faced with the realization that the holidays will be looking very different this year.  You may be asking yourself, “how can we celebrate ‘the most wonderful time of year’ if we have to cut out established traditions?” It may be feeling difficult to experience and share joy when plans are being cancelled and gatherings are becoming smaller.  Know that you are not alone in these feelings and it is OK to feel this way.  It may be more detrimental to urge joy when it is not felt.  During this continued time of uncertainty, you and your loved ones must acknowledge how hard this truly is.

Whether you lost a family member(s) this year or are experiencing a loss with the cancellation of holiday traditions, it will be important to check in with yourself and your loved ones about how they are feeling.  You may have heard of the stages of grief.  Take note of the following stages and how you or others may be experiencing them right now:

  1. Denial – This can be different for everyone. Maybe the virus hasn’t directly impacted your family, so it feels surreal to you. Or maybe you find yourself denying that having your usual Thanksgiving dinner with extended family could be harmful.
  2. Anger – Do you find yourself “snapping” at those around you? Do you feel the anger bubble to the surface when you listen to the news and what the specialists are recommending?
  3. Bargaining – “If we spread out, then it is fine to have our big family dinner.” It is common to want to find solutions to make a situation work. Conversations with loved ones may sound like “But what if we do X, then Y can happen.”
  4. Depression – This will be one of the most important stages to look out for and could come at any time. For many, they may already experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, or the “winter (or holiday) blues.” But as we know, this has been an exceptionally challenging year so pay attention to the following symptoms:
    • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
    • Irritability, angry outbursts, or low frustration tolerance
    • Loss of interest in or ability to enjoy usual activities
    • Sleep disturbance, whether inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
    • Fatigue and lack of energy; everything feels effortful
    • Appetite disturbance, including loss of interest in eating and weight loss or overeating and weight gain
    • Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness
    • Slowed thinking, moving, or talking
    • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt, a focus on past failure, self-blame
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and making decisions
    • Recurring thoughts of death
    • Physical pain such as headaches or back pain that has no clear cause.


  1. Acceptance – This is the goal for all. This is more than just accepting that it will be different, but it is also about accepting how you feel about this challenging time. Without the acceptance of those feelings, it will be very hard to find the resiliency to get through this holiday season.


So, what can you do?

  1. First, if you or your loved ones are experiencing symptoms of depression, please consult with a mental health professional. Most professionals have transitioned to telehealth services that make attending sessions easier in the comfort of your own home!
  2. Make your plans in advance. Help those around you feel more at ease with some predictability of what will come. Although the resulting plans may be challenging to hear for some, this will give them the time to process their feelings and seek support.
  3. Talk about your feelings. This will be especially important to demonstrate and allow for children and adolescents.  Modeling that it is OK to feel this way and having discussions to normalize those feelings will be important.
  4. Make new traditions! While this may be hard to imagine, this can bring some of that joy that was missing during initial planning of this holiday season. For example, Zoom just announced that they are removing the 40-minute time limit on free calls for Thanksgiving to connect with those you could not be with. Or make a tradition of watching old movies (or holiday movies).  Some psychologists have found that nostalgia can help to cope in uncertain times.


For more information,

Coping with Holiday Change

Coping with Disappointment

Coping with COVID Grief

How to Cope If You’re Alone for the Holidays