Grief in the Season of Joy

How to survive the first holiday after a loved one’s death.

A sad man eats alone.
Sometimes the holiday season is far from merry.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by

My condolences. This is probably going to be pretty bad.

The first holiday after a death in the family is a weird mirror image of the funeral. Back then, you all gathered to concentrate on your grief, and the purpose of the ceremony was to focus everyone’s attention on the person who wasn’t there, to describe the absence so vividly that it felt like a presence. They work, funerals. They do the job.

But now it’s Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever your family does in the winter, and it has arrived entirely on its own schedule. ’Tis the season to be jolly!

Some members of your family have probably begun a process of willful forgetting. Others are still holding the dead beloved close. It’s painful, but it’s less painful than letting go, those people might say, if they were able to articulate the desperate accommodations they’re making to the pain that threatens to tear them to pieces. The first set of people would say the reverse. None of you is doing it wrong. But now you’re all getting together for a day or a long weekend or, God help you, a week, and one person’s not-thinking-about-it and another’s talking-about-it-all-the-time can’t coexist in a small space for long.

What’s good about holiday traditions, under normal circumstances, is that they’re the things we did last time: Everything changes, usually for the worse, but we can still get together to decorate the tree or light the candles. But this year you can’t get together, not all of you. That will make these little annual assaults on entropy seem pointless and hollow to some members of your family and more important than ever to others. Parents can become uncharacteristically brittle: They really do feel that the ham and the mulled wine and the Frank Sinatra Christmas album are the only things holding the world together. Grown children can revert to an adolescent insistence that this is all bullshit and no one around here ever says what they really mean.

Someone has to hold this thing together, and it looks like it has to be you.

As early as possible, get all the adults in one place. Seize one of those unscheduled sitting-around moments that are the best parts of family gatherings. Clear your throat and get everyone’s attention, and then raise the issue directly. Acknowledge that you all miss the dead person and that everyone feels anxious about facing the holidays without him or her. And then say how much you’re looking forward just to spending time with everyone and that we can all do this in our own way—the point is that we’re all going to be together, which when you think about it is what’s really important about whichever holiday this is anyway. (This may or may not reflect your true feelings, but go with it.)

Some people might cry at this point, and other people won’t, and it’s good to get that out on the table, the fact that everyone’s going to be doing this their own way. Work on being OK with whatever your way turns out to be, and then work on being OK with everyone else’s ways. If anyone has a problem with your way, try to remember that that’s part of their way. Start forgiving everyone already, if you can.

If you keep the focus on togetherness, and you acknowledge the black-shrouded elephant in the room, you can broach the subject of what to do over the next few days. Introduce a few heretical suggestions. What if we went to a restaurant instead? Do the adults need to give each other presents? Altering the routine, even a little, helps ward off the awful feeling of trying to keep everything the same when nothing will ever be the same again. But remember to be gentle about the things that matter to people. Make a show of your flexibility. Mom says the presents are important to her, that’s fine. I don’t really care what we eat as long as we’re all together.

We wound up seeing a movie and then going to a diner in Santa Monica. I had a tuna melt and fries, and we saw Geena Davis there, and it was a pretty nice Christmas, considering.