An Empty Seat at the Table: Grief at the Holidays

December 19, 2017

Dr. Michele Marsh is a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist at our Center City location. Dr. Marsh’s specialty areas include trauma, sexuality throughout the life cycle, sexual abuse, affairs, depression and anxiety, parenting issues, and loss and grief.


Sparkling lights, candles in the windows, eight nights of lights and song, wreaths everywhere, and the glow of a fire welcoming loved ones home for the holidays….all signs tell us that the winter holidays are a happy time to warm up and share good cheer. So what if you can’t? What if you’ve recently experienced a loss or the unexpected jolt from a painful breakup? What if all of these reminders have become triggers for your grief this holiday season?

Unfortunately, many people are sad or struggling at this time of year. Life doesn’t conveniently sort itself into periods of happiness or sadness according to the calendar. Grief can make the holiday season a real challenge—and not the “normal” challenge of buying gifts or replicating beautiful holiday scenes in your picture-perfect home. If you or a loved one are suffering from loss, here are some thoughts which may help you or them survive the holidays with less pain and stress.

1. Give yourself permission to grieve in your own way.

Grief is a very individual experience. The worse your grief is, the more it helps to give yourself full permission to experience it your own way. “Your way” might mimic closely all the traditions of the past, keeping intact family rituals and habits. This could be comforting in the midst of sadness. Honoring holiday traditions may help you say, “Well, at least not everything has changed.”

“Your way” may mean skipping all of the traditions you find painful, creating new ones, or escaping for awhile—going to visit a friend, taking a trip you’ve postponed, or just doing the simplest things to get through the day. There is no right or wrong here, only what works for you. The goal is to survive and get to the other side, which you surely will.


2. Communicate expectations and accomodations.

Steering clear of those who expect a lot from you can be a healthy coping mechanism. Family members or close friends may not understand your level of grief and your need to change things up a bit. Tell them in polite but plain language that you are doing the best you can and this is the way you have to do it for now. If that means not giving the usual gifts, or attending the parties and the usual festivities, give a brief explanation, but hold on to the permission to do this the way you need to (see tip number one, above). For things you must do, like take care of others, this may be a good time to learn to ask for help. People often want to help but may not know your needs. It is not wrong for you to communicate what you need from them.


3. Tell trusted people what you need from them.

Unfortunately, our culture is not very helpful to those trying to figure out how the course of their grief unfolds or what to expect of them. An unwritten expectation I have often heard is something like “They should be OK by now, right? It’s been over a year and I think they need to start living again (or dating, or having fun, or….).”

This misguided “rule” fails to take into account that if you’ve lost a loved one, your grief may be worse at certain times, even if it’s been years or decades since the loss. An empty place at the table for a parent, sibling or child may always be on your mind at this time, even if it normally looks like you’re doing OK. Try to trust that people care how you are doing and what you need—so tell them plainly. You may be pleased to see that they want to help and comfort you, not add to your pain.


4. Take care of yourself thoughtfully.

Although sometimes it feels as though you have no choice, there are always choices you can make. These range from buying yourself a present (a massage, a special movie) to activities that nourish your soul (a quiet walk, time away from the office, “stolen minutes” to meditate or listen to your favorite music, a nap…yes, a nap!). When others are depending on you to share their holiday, or even prepare it for them, finding a way to take care of yourself can necessitate some difficult conversations.

For example, in the worst of grief times, going away from your own home and bed can feel not only strange but impossible. Saying so may be necessary, even if it disappoints others. Following some old traditions, but not all, may help you know you are doing your best but also carving out time to do it your way (see tip number one, above). Sometimes a loving friend or sibling can fill in for you, especially with your children, if you need some time alone.


5. Remember that faith may help. Or not.

Religious or spiritual beliefs are sometimes a great comfort in the midst of grief. On the other hand, in terrible times some people question their faith and/or beliefs for a variety of reasons, the most compelling being the pain they feel. It is easy to feel let down by God or a philosophy which didn’t prepare you for such pain. A word to the wise: if you are helping someone get through the holidays, have no expectation that their usual philosophy of life will hold up. It may come back, but do not be surprised if pain or even bitterness seem to take its place. Time may help, but at the present, accept whatever your loved one is experiencing. Use your own faith or spiritual life to help you help them.


Grief can cast a cloud over the holidays. It can take a toll on the “spirit of the season.” Give grief its due and take care of yourself and the ones you love the best you can. It could go a long way toward peace in the New Year.


Dr. Michele Marsh is a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist at our Center City location. Dr. Marsh’s specialty areas include trauma, sexuality throughout the life cycle, sexual abuse, affairs; depression, and anxiety; parenting issues; and loss and grief. Request an appointment today