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How to Cope with Grief During the Holidays

Safe Harbor program coordinators share their tips on opening lines of communication and connection, establishing new family traditions, guidance on how to support grieving loved ones and more.

For many people, the holidays are a time full of festive food, family traditions celebrations and good cheer. However, for families who are grieving, this time of year can be difficult – one that brings a painful reminder of a loved one who is gone.

“Grief can be a really isolating experience. Whether you’re a child or an adult, you kind of feel like no one understands your particular pain,” says Heide Marcelis, program coordinator for Jefferson Health – Abington’s Safe Harbor program.

The Safe Harbor program supports grieving children, teens and families, and offers peer grief support groups for children ages four through 18, and for their caregivers.

“One of the main goals of Safe Harbor is to open up that communication within families so that they do not feel isolated,” says Michelle Balcer, also a program coordinator for Safe Harbor

Dealing with isolation and grief is tough any time of year, but during the holidays, it brings a unique set of challenges for families. The excitement of the season is often cut short by the realization that someone you love will be missing from the festivities.

Marcelis and Balcer offer advice to help grieving families navigate the difficulties that come with the holiday season.

Tips for Grieving Families

  • Choice: Everyone grieves differently and you have the right to choose how you want to handle the holidays. “Ask yourself, do you want to put up a tree this year or is that too difficult? Do you want to do a big family gathering or are you more comfortable with a small celebration? You have the right to choose,” says Marcelis.
  • Communication: Once you make your choice, communicate that decision with others. “Leading up to the holidays, we encourage families to have these discussions with each other ahead of time,” says Balcer. “A lot of times people choose not to speak up because they don’t want to upset someone else in the family, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open.”
  • Compromise: When disagreements happen, be open to compromise. “In our support groups, we often hear things like, ‘I want to do things one way and my in-laws just don’t understand,’” says Marcelis. “When there’s a lot of strife and no wiggle room, it can create more problems down the road – sometimes it helps to find some middle ground.”

Creating New Family Traditions

Every year the Safe Harbor team provides different rituals and activities for families to do together, as a means of creating new traditions, while working through their feelings and honoring their loved one’s memory.

One of the most popular activities among Safe Harbor families is the memory box, which is a special box that children often decorate based on their loved one’s favorite place. During the holidays, family members can cut up strips of paper to write down a favorite memory of their loved one, and place them in the keepsake box.

“If people want to share those memories, they can. It brings that person to the table, which is a really great thing,” says Marcelis. “It can be emotional but it’s okay. It’s okay if there are some tears flowing at the table, because it’s important to remember that this was someone who was a critical part of the family.”

Arts and craft activities are especially helpful for grieving children.

“Let’s say you have a child who is not sure how they’re going to feel during holiday dinner with the family. It’s okay to give them some coloring and artwork on the side, even during dinner, if that’s a safe outlet for them,” says Balcer. “Art can be a safe container for them to put their feelings into. It makes a world of difference for these children before and after they do their activity.”

Marcelis and Balcer recommend that families discuss beforehand what activities if any, they would like to do individually or together.

Supporting Grieving Loved Ones

Maybe you know someone who has experienced a loss and you’re not sure how you can help them through the holidays. Even if you have never navigated grief yourself, it’s important to be present, supportive and genuine.

“Acknowledge the loss. You can say, ‘Hey, I recognize that the holidays are coming up and that this might be tough for you. I just want to let you know that if you want someone to talk to, if you want to meet up for a cup of coffee and chat, I’m here for you because I recognize that grief is an ongoing process,” says Marcelis.

During the holiday season or any time of year, the key is to ensure that families who are grieving know that they are not alone.

“Maybe you have no idea what it’s like to go through grief. If so you can say that,” says Balcer. “You can say that to them, ‘I have no idea what you’re going through right now. I have never been through this type of loss. I’ve never experienced this, but I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and I’m here.’”

For more information about Safe Harbor, a list of grief support resources and more, visit:

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