Helping Yourself Cope with Holidays and Anniversaries

The loss of a loved one hurts more on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or other special days, when the grief you feel gains additional clarity and depth. These feelings are normal and to be expected. Special days intensify grief because they focus feelings of loss. The absence of your loved one will alter or completely change the traditions you shared, which in turn will awaken many memories.

Strong emotions

In addition to the sharpened grief you may feel, you may also experience other emotions: apprehension of the pain that will colour former celebrations or anxiety about related preparations. It is normal to experience a strong desire to simply avoid the entire day or event. You may feel uncertain because you don’t know what to do and you think that your plans just aren’t right.

Approaching traditions

One of the best ways to approach special days is to acknowledge that they will be different. Keep in mind that for most, the anticipation of special days is usually worse than the actual experience. Holidays, birthdays or anniversaries can still be pleasant for you and others, particularly if you think ahead and communicate with one another. When planning for special days, look realistically at past experiences. What was really enjoyable and what could you have done without? Choose to do only the things you will truly enjoy.

You may need to modify some traditions, particularly if your loved one played a strong role. Talk with other family members to gain their insight. How should you present these traditions this year? Perhaps you or others would prefer to end some traditions entirely. Discuss these preferences as a group. Expect that feelings of grief will surface and support each other as they do.

Your family may begin entirely new traditions. A holiday celebration may be held at an unusual location or time. Novel menus and events may be planned. At first, these may feel strange or empty, but if you give yourself time to adjust, the new experiences will develop comfort and familiarity.

Whether you pursue older or newer traditions, you can still include your loved one. You may wish to bake your favourite cake on your spouse’s birthday and have everyone over for dinner, or set aside a special photo-and-story hour on certain holidays to allow everyone to share memories. By including your loved one in today’s celebrations, you honour his or her memory. Many find this comforting. They appreciate the opportunity to express or at least reaffirm their feelings about the one who is gone.

The expectations of others

You may be expected to attend certain celebrations, like a neighbour's graduation or a cousin’s wedding. A community group you and your spouse enjoyed may be hosting its annual holiday potluck and you always brought the relish tray. You may find such situations easier to manage if you consider them individually, according to how you feel at the time. For example, if you’ve been invited to a summer barbecue, wait until the day of the party to see how you feel about going and make your decision then. It’s okay to say: “I hope you understand that holidays can be difficult and I’m trying to take care of myself by not planning too much. May I come at the last minute if I feel I can handle a party that day?” Most people will understand.

Reaching out

Sometimes, instead of fielding invitations for holiday parties and celebrations, the opposite may happen. Not knowing what to say or believing you want time to grieve, you may be left alone. This may not be what you want. If you want to be with friends and family, tell them so. Ask for their support and companionship. Explain that the day may be difficult for you and you do not want to face it alone.


Expect to feel tired and in greater need of rest during the holidays or on special days. Experiencing grief and processing associated feelings and memories may leave you physically and mentally exhausted, even though you participated in no strenuous activities. Give your body and mind a peaceful, quiet place to rest. If your home has traditionally been the hub of holiday activity and you wish to continue that tradition, be sure to ask family and friends for extra help.

Giving yourself

You can make special days easier by giving to others. On your loved one’s birthday or an important anniversary, consider volunteering at a school, hospital, retirement home, community centre, library, museum or public gardens—anywhere that carries special significance for you or your loved one. Holidays may be easier if you spend time assisting at your place of worship, or lend a hand at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or rescue mission.

Loss changes your entire concept of yourself. You can regain some of your identity by reaching out to meet the needs of others. Then too, putting yourself back in the mainstream of life is a necessary part of healing. You’ll be refocusing your mind from the pain of your loss to the satisfaction of giving to others.