How do you handle your grief during the holidays?

I love this season when the leaves change to brilliant colors, when the temperature drops and it’s time to pull out the coats and scarves. Chanterelle mushrooms are at the grocery store, all the cooking magazines have delicious holiday menu features with photos that make me drool and the scent of pumpkin bread baking fills the air. Even the rain on the pavement and the long periods of darkness, this sort of hibernation, I savor the time to gather and hug and hunker down. 

But this precious season of celebrations, of good friends and families, of kindness and gratitude is also difficult for many who are grieving. Grief presses down harder this time of year. No matter how many years my mom has been gone, I still miss her smile, the subtle scent of her Calandra perfume when I hugged her close, helping her make cannelloni and fudge and chocolate truffles. 

Christmas morning will never be the same without her, and Thanksgiving, well every year since she’s been gone I’ve wanted to deny Thanksgiving and fly away somewhere tropical where the scent of turkey roasting in the oven isn’t even a thought.

It’s been five years now since my mom died, and the ache is still present, but that first year, oh boy! Every holiday, every birthday, every anniversary of any type hit like a whiplash of pain. I had to anchor myself to the ground, heart protected, and brace through the storm. Over the years, even though the pain is still there, I’ve developed better coping mechanisms to help me deal with my grief through the holidays.

I cook and bake a lot of my mom’s favorite dishes. I make her gooey cinnamon rolls with my kids, I serve her sourdough beef dip at a holiday gathering because it’s absolutely unhealthy and 70’s kitsch, and when I pull the bread lid off after it’s done baking and take my first bite, in a heartbeat, the memory takes me back to my childhood home in Denver during a Christmas Eve party, all of us there together, warm and laughing and happy.

I’ve started traditions with my husband and kids because I loved the traditions we had growing up and feel like these conscious rituals help me honor my mom. It’s a way for me to be mindful, for me to be present. One of our new traditions, for my own sweet family, is to get dressed up and go somewhere special for dinner. This will be our fourth year and I can’t wait to see what restaurant we pick this year.

We decorate the tree with a mix of my mom’s old ornaments and our silly ones while we listen to my childhood Christmas favorites, Peter Paul & Mary’s Christmas Album with a gorgeous version of “Blowing In the Wind”, and John Denver & the Muppets Christmas his voice singing, “It’s in every one of us, to be wise” touches my heart every time I listen.

If I’m lucky, and we’re all in the same city, my sister, sister-in-law and I will get pedicures, because that’s what we did with my mom. And I treat myself to a new lipstick at Christmas, because my mom was the queen of lipsticks.

Sometimes I sneak time to myself, cuddle up under the blankets on the couch and read a favorite book that we both loved, I get lost in Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher and ignore life for a few hours.

I listen to the gorgeous song “Mary” by Patti Griffin, because it’s stunning and it makes me cry Every. Single. Time. And I welcome the tears as I think about my mom, Mary.

I connect with my dad, my siblings, and my cousins and we share our favorite memories of all those we have lost.

I still cry in the shower when I think about how she won’t get to see her grandkids grow up. And I wonder if this will be the year I’ll be able to watch the old movies with her in them because the first year I tried, the sound of her voice slayed me.

For me it helps to be around people I love who genuinely hold my heart with care. It also helps me to be alone sometimes because the missing her is too profound that I just need darkness and quiet and to be with my grief. Some moments I tell my husband that I’m sad and I miss her so much it hurts like hell. And he simply listens.

And it absolutely helps me to connect with people who loved my mom and with people who have also lost a loved one because they know what it’s like to experience grief.

They know that while we go on with our day to day routines, because it’s what we do, some moments the pain is so great you just want to wail and rip your hair out. They know that no matter how awesome Thanksgiving is for most people, for you the pain might just be too much to bear. 

Do you know someone who’s grieving this holiday season? Reach out to them, sometimes that can make all the difference, especially if this is their first holiday season of grief. Ask them how they are doing and ask if there’s anything you can do for them, even if it’s just sitting and listening to them. 

If you live with someone who is grieving ask if they need you close, or if they need space. They might need both at different times. Grief makes no sense. 

It’s in every one of us to spread joy and love this season, and to ask a friend, who’s missing a loved one, how they are doing. What do you miss about your loved one? Did you have a special memory? A favorite restaurant you ate at together? A a lovely holiday tradition you had with them? I’d love to hear if you need someone to listen. Sharing our stories is a beautiful way to honor the people we’ve lost and keep their memories warm in our hearts.

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Sara Ohlin

Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher and Salvaging Love. You can find her essays at, Feminine Collective, Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home, and in anthologies such as Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips, & Love from Women Caregivers. Find her at

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