Surviving the Holidays When Your Parents are Gone

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READING TIME: 4 min.

How do you celebrate the holidays when your parents are dead?

There’s no guidebook or lesson plan. No mentor to hold your hand. You’re left to muddle through, trying to keep sadness from overwhelming you and ruining the holidays.

My dad passed away a few days before Thanksgiving in 2014. My mother-in-law passed in 2019, having been a widow for 11 years following the death of my father-in-law in 2008.

While my husband and I agree on most things, we’ve taken very different approaches to managing our grief this time of year.

My husband eschews any reminders of his childhood holidays. His parents loved decorating for the holidays. Hanging lights and trimming the tree filled their hearts and home with happiness. Since they’ve been gone, my poor husband can’t even bring himself to hang an ornament. Decking the halls has become my responsibility, a job I gladly do to spare my husband the reminder that his parents are no longer here.

I’m the opposite. Instead of deliberately avoiding reminders of my childhood holidays, I frantically try to recreate them for my kids in an effort to keep my dad present. Visits to Santa. My mom’s plum pudding and Christmas cake. Weeks spent shopping for the perfect gift.

And when those plans don’t go as expected, I sometimes get mad. I’ve never been much of a crier, and sadness usually bubbles out of me as anger. I still cringe at the memory of a full-on tantrum I threw the year after my dad died. I can’t remember why I got so mad at my husband, but I do remember his response. He was kind and composed, giving me the space I needed to get my feelings out, knowing that I wasn’t really mad at him, just overcome with sadness.

While there are no ways to get over the loss of your parents, there are ways to get through the sadness that can be especially acute during the holidays.

After the Loss of a Parent. . .Create New Holiday Traditions

For some people, keeping old traditions can be comforting, for others it can be too painful. If replicating holiday traditions from your childhood is too hard, try coming up with new holiday traditions to honor the memory of your parents.

My family honors my Italian mother-in-law with an Italian feast on Christmas Eve. We honor my father-in-law by telling stories about him as we hang ornaments he gave us on the Christmas tree. As for my dad, while he may have dutifully read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to me every Christmas Eve, I’ve continued the tradition with How the Grinch Stole Christmas instead.

Grandparents are notorious for spoiling their grandkids. We keep that tradition alive for our kids by designating at least one day over the Thanksgiving holidays as a “what would grandma/grandpa do” day. It involves some over-the-top, kid-centric activity, like a stay at the Great Wolf Lodge, a trip to Six Flags, or a shopping spree at Build-a-Bear or American Girl.

After the Loss of a Parent. . . Pay It Forward

Distracting ourselves with volunteer work has also helped my family get through our sadness this time of year. Helping others can lift your spirits.

Wee Volunteer organizes age-appropriate service projects for preschool and elementary-age school children with local Dallas charitable organizations. My family spent one memorable December morning decorating a child care center for low-income families thanks to Wee Volunteer.

We also adopt 3 senior citizens from the Salvation Army Angel Tree every year in honor of our lost loved ones. Taking care of these seniors during the Christmas season, making sure that they know they are loved and remembered, is a great way to honor the memory of our parents.

After the Loss of a Parent. . . Give Yourself Space and Grace

As my temper tantrum story above shows, there are going to be times when you just aren’t feeling the holiday spirit. And that’s okay. Give yourself the space and time to reflect on your feelings.

Even if you have a house full of kids like I fortunately do, it’s okay to still miss the people who aren’t there.

You aren’t any less thankful for what you do have when you grieve what you have lost.

And speaking of kids, there will be times that you are happy. It’s hard not to be happy seeing kids enjoying the magic of Christmas. Don’t feel guilty. It doesn’t mean you don’t still miss your parents. I like to remind myself how happy my dad would be to see me and his grandkids happy.

If you have lost your parent(s), how do you survive the holidays?

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