The Holidays, Trauma and Loss: A Time for Healing and Meaning

By Dr. Donna Gaffney


Even if you experienced your loss many years ago, the holidays can re-activate feelings that occurred at earlier times of grief. Traumatic events, especially traumatic loss, may precipitate increased feelings of loss and emotional distress at anniversaries and holidays. This can be one of the most challenging times for survivors and their families. It can also result in the frustration of others who may not understand why a person is angry, upset or distant.

Here are some things to consider as you journey through your grief experience this holiday season:

The holiday myth

Holidays challenge most people, grieving or not. Old family issues are re-awakened and those who are no longer alive are missed in a more intense way. Families imagine the most romantic views of the holidays with sweet memories from their childhoods. But there can also be a yearning for the perfect holiday that “might have been.” These wishes and hoped-for events are often reinforced by advertising, marketing and the media. In truth, the reality often falls short of such high expectations.

The trauma survivor

Traumatic events that occur at holidays and other important celebrations are especially complicated. The holidays are a time of stress for many trauma survivors because there seems to be an increased sense of isolation. He or she perceives the rest of the world as joyful and happy, while the survivor is mired in the sadness of sad past events. For those who witnessed the loss of friends and co-workers, this pain can be compounded by grief for peers and their families who now face the holidays without those loved ones. Sometimes survivor guilt reappears; people repeatedly ask the question, “Why did I survive?”

Financial difficulties

Financial difficulties can seem even more difficult by the commercialization of the holidays. Yet this can be a time to take advantage of creating a unique and very personal way of celebrating. We don't have to conform to the rigid commercial stereotype of expensive gifts and big gatherings. In fact, some people may not be comfortable in crowds or at parties and, as a result, small meaningful celebrations may feel more appropriate.


Children are especially perceptive and will watch how their family members move through this emotionally charged time. A drastic change or even the elimination of a traditional family celebration will only compound the loss for children, “I don’t have my father and now I won’t have Christmas either.” Discussing what the family might like to do can be empowering for children. This may be difficult for the adults, but be patient, and allow the younger generation to express their thoughts and ideas.

Factors influencing the response to holidays and celebrations:

Since the last time you celebrated this holiday:

  • Has anyone assumed a new role?
  • Are there changes in your living situations?
  • Are there any financial changes?
  • Is there an addition of a new permanent or temporary family member?
  • Did you lose a family member to death, divorce or moving to their own home?
  • Has there been a recent move?
  • Does anyone in the family have a new job?
  • Are any of the children attending a new school?

Considering these factors, you may need to make the holiday different, to both recognize the loss (making it clear that the holiday rituals will not be the same as before) and move toward building new rituals, new roles and new meanings.

Holiday traditions

Cultural, religious or historical aspects of a holiday provide a vital connection to the past. Maintaining and following certain traditions can be a source of comfort. The routine of familiar past celebrations can provide a sense of security and continuity in life when one feels overwhelmed and can become a tribute to and reminder of those who have died. But, some prefer to create new routines and ways to honour someone's memory.

New rituals

Small changes in existing family traditions are often easier than making a major shift, but sometimes family traditions are out of balance and only please one side of the family, one spouse or parent. Creating new rituals can aid in the healing process. To keep things balanced, ask what others would like to do for the holidays. Talking about possibilities with family members can help prevent disappointments.

Planning rituals requires time, thought and communication by family members in the weeks before the holiday. As the rituals are being planned it needs to be clear that they are meaningful for all the members who are involved—not just done in order to appease one person. There also needs to be room for those who don't want to be involved, without becoming the target of resentment from others.

Whether you decide to maintain your holiday traditions or create new rituals, there is hope and healing for you and your family this holiday season.