Coping With Grief During the Holidays

What do we go through when we experience grief? How does it affect us when the holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration? Coping with grief during the holidays when there is loss in one’s life can be helped by reaching out to others and doing specific activities.

We go through life and experience loss. It’s a fact, and not a pleasant one.

It seems the older I get, the more funerals I attend—and that is how I recall my parents in their later years as they started to brace themselves whenever the phone rang.

Some cultures and individuals learn how to grieve while others have a hard time with the acceptance of death. During the holiday season, losing a loved one or remembering those that have passed away can be very difficult for some people.

The Importance of Ritual

Certainly, there are religions that include a ritualistic aspect of services and daily prayer. With major life transitions: birth, naming, rites of passage, marriage, death—there are accepted rituals and ceremonial practices which are common in the Western World, even if a person doesn’t follow a specific faith. Ritual has been ingrained in the human experience for thousands of years and offers a way to come together in a common purpose within a family and community.

Polytheistic rituals from around the world have a similar design, as do monotheistic religious practices.

In the midst of the California wildfires and other tragedies during the past season, I find myself returning to ritual and ceremony—with specificity placed upon how to process loss. Below are three activities I’ve incorporated into the holiday season that may help others cope with grief during the holidays.

1. The Gratitude Centerpiece/Gratitude Wreath

One of my daily rituals is to make a gratitude list of at least five things so I am able to start my day off with a positive attitude and a better perspective. I find that if I dwell on what I don’t have, or all the things I need, there is a tendency to become overwhelmed, especially during the holidays.

A project-based ritual that people can do if they are in residential treatment, or at a family gathering is to create a gratitude centerpiece for the table. It starts with people writing down “gratitudes” on a list or a board, coming up with as many as they can. Then, you can get creative.

This project takes about two hours. You’ll need:

  • A styrofoam base (boxes from around the house can also work)
  • Colored paper or painted/colored coffee filters


  1. Cut 5-9 leaf designs out of your colored paper to have a “pile” of a few dozen leaves.
  2. When your leaves are ready, cover the base using with a tissue paper (like the type you stuff gift bags with), gluing them in place.
  3. Once set, add the “gratitude leaves.”
  4. If you want to go one step further, you can add another base for the middle of the wreath and place a small branch to hang the leaves from. Otherwise, the wreath can go on the table with a bouquet of flowers inside the middle, be hung on a door, or displayed basically anywhere.

This is a great way of incorporating the names of loved ones who cannot attend your gatherings throughout the holiday season.

This ritual of creating something together can help put your focus on those in your life who are still here, rather than becoming increasingly depressed about those who are not.

2. Setting the “Spirit Plate”

During any meal at holiday time, I set a spirit plate—which is simply putting a plate where I am eating and taking a portion of my meal and placing it on the plate. The plate represents a loved one who can no longer eat with me, either because they have passed on or they cannot travel to be with me.

Food rituals are a central theme during the holidays—many people only eat certain types of food (turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing) and the gathering becomes all about the feast, the conversation in the kitchen, the enjoyment, and the ability to nourish those we care about in our groups, families, and clans.

Laying out a spirit plate, or multiple plates, for every member to put a small amount of food on, creates attention given to the loved one not in attendance as an honoring, but does not dwell in the house of grief and loss, rather it allows all in attendance to feel a connection with them, as if they were able to share the important meal event.

3. Be of Service to Others

Being of service to others is actually my favorite activity to do during the holiday season. So many people feel better when they can give of themselves as we often work hard on being able to receive. Giving uplifts the spirit and can “get us outside of ourselves” as we are actually doing something, rather than sitting and thinking too much. Some of the organizations I’ve personally volunteered for over the holidays that have helped me sort through difficult periods of complicated grief are:

  • Animal shelters
  • Senior homes
  • Homeless and homeless shelters
  • Toys for children in need
  • Carolling
  • Women’s shelters
  • Food pantries

There are so many places you can volunteer in your community year-round, I highly suggest looking into it during the holidays if you are experiencing the trauma and process of loss and grief.

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Lastly, if these activities are all too much for you since you may have experienced recent trauma, please exercise self-care and allow for others to help you, even if that means not engaging in conversation but allowing for some type of connection. Connection to others at this time is what can keep us from spiraling further downward.

Seek out professional help outside the family and friends, take the necessary time for yourself, and understand that there are several stages of grief which are non-linear and can take the time it takes to have a different perspective of the loss.

Coping With Loss: What to Do When You Can’t Handle Grief

The death of a loved one is an especially traumatic experience, and it is difficult for anyone to get over such a loss quickly or easily. If you cannot get past the pain and devastation of losing a loved one, you may be suffering from complicated grief. If left untreated, this condition can put you at risk for many other mental and physical health complications. The good news is complicated grief responds well to residential treatment, and no one who experiences it should have to suffer indefinitely.

To increase the likelihood of recovery, those suffering from complicated grief should begin the healing process in a residential mental health treatment program such as the one we provide at Bridges to Recovery.

The goal of treatment is never to minimize the loss of your loved one, but to discover ways of expressing, understanding, and coping with that loss in ways that are nourishing, revitalizing, and restorative. With the right therapies delivered with compassion and respect, you can begin the process of meaningful recovery to reawaken your spirit and enhance your quality of life.

Bridges to Recovery offers innovative, holistic treatment for people suffering from complicated grief. Contact us today to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path toward healing.