Still, in the face of all that pain in a season when seemingly everyone else is holly jolly, experts told me that some proven strategies can help people move forward from the sadness, irrespective of how fresh the feelings are. The impulse to clam up about the deceased at a family dinner isn’t necessarily the best move; the Grief Recovery Institute has found that the biggest need for people in mourning is to “talk about what happened and my relationship with the person who died.”
Mari Itzkowitz, a clinical therapist at the Center for Loss and Renewal in Alexandria, Virginia, says that talking about loved ones is key. “Light a candle, say the names, bring the people into the room,” Itzkowitz told me. “You’re the one to bring it in, you’re the one to bring it up, which then gives people permission to celebrate the joy.” In other words, “you’re allowed to feel really bad.”
Another key to working through grief, Itzkowitz says, is figuring out new rituals and traditions. Say Grandma always hosted a holiday meal at her house—how should a family handle planning the first year without her?
“It’s about everybody having a conversation together and saying, ‘Okay, this sucks. We can’t do it this way. What is the new tradition we would like to create for our family moving forward?” Itzkowitz says.
Indeed, many of the grieving people I talked with mentioned recalibrating the holiday season with new routines and traditions, whether it’s minor tweaks or major changes.
Hazelwanter told me that she plans to place an ornament with William’s name on it on her Christmas tree. “I know we’ll talk about Willie and have memories of him,” she says. “As long as everybody’s comfortable talking about him, I think that’s pretty much all we would do—include him in conversation.”
Gebler Greenberg told me that because her husband was Jewish, she has started to incorporate some of his rituals into the holidays, like teaching her grandchildren about Hanukkah and bringing them gelt. Honoring him with new traditions, she says, “makes it better.”
Saucedo told me that during the holidays, her mother would help manage her father, who struggles with alcohol abuse. Now that she’s gone, Saucedo has taken on that responsibility herself. “She loved and respected my dad despite his drinking, drug use, and lack of parental support,” Saucedo says. “We try not to upset each other—that’s what my mom would have wanted.”
Of course, new routines and traditions aren’t some elixir for the pain of a loved one’s death. And some people aren’t quite ready to lose their cherished traditions. As Catherine tells me, “I can see a possibility of new ways to celebrate in the future, but I’m not there yet.” Still, as Itzkowitz says, breaking the “normal” habits of the holidays can be an illuminating experience for those in mourning.
Maryanne Pope says she knows her late husband would be glad she continues their tradition of kicking off the holiday season by watching their all-time favorite movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
“The first time I watched it after his death was pretty difficult. But I still laughed at the funny scenes,” she says. “And now, after all these years, every time I watch it, I always take away something different. And I always laugh.”