How to Handle Holiday Grief

PHOTO: Christina Rasmussens late husband posed with their daughters in July 2004 while he underwent chemotherapy.
Courtesy Christina Rasmussen
Christina Rasmussen's late husband posed with their daughters in July 2004 while he underwent chemotherapy.

Christina Rasmussen struggled through the first Christmas after her husband died.

Her parents visited, and they marched on with their usual traditions, but to Rasmussen, it all felt wrong and painful, she said.

“Everyone is happy on the outside,” she said. “And you feel broken.”

The next year, she asked her parents to stay home and tried to make the holidays a joy for herself and her young daughters despite their loss.

Rasmussen now counsels thousands of people through grief and has become a bestselling author on the subject. Here are her tips for getting through the holidays while dealing with loss.

Do something that’s not traditional.

Rasmussen and her family –- including her new husband, a widower -– make it a point to celebrate their holidays by doing things that are not traditional. And she tells others going through grief to do the same.

Hosting a traditional holiday meal can sometimes trigger painful memories, and highlight the absence of a missing loved one. She finds that stepping outside of convention can help create new, positive memories.

For example, Rasmussen’s family has spent several Thanksgivings hiking in Sedona, Arizona instead of celebrating in their native Boston.

“It was a wonderful trip for the kids,” Rasmussen said. “We went hiking. It was amazing to have Thanksgiving outside of the traditions.”

Realize that loss is defined by more than just death.

Just because no one around you has died doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced loss. It comes in many forms, Rasmussen said.

“Divorce is a terrible loss,” Rasmussen said, adding that even losing a job counts as loss.

And then there are invisible losses, such as having a family member who is present but emotionally unavailable.

“You have a big loss inside of you that nobody knows about,” Rasmussen said. “You’re not seen; you’re not validated.”

Give yourself a break.

Many people find themselves pressured to celebrate holidays a certain way, regardless of whether they actually enjoy it.

For people dealing with grief, Rasmussen says it’s extremely important to give yourself permission to honor your needs.

“If you’re invited to the dinner and don’t want to go, don’t,” she said. “If you’d rather hike, hike. If you’d rather sit home and cry for days, do that. “

Are you in ‘the waiting room?’

Rasmussen calls the painful transition time between loss and life after loss “the waiting room” in her book Second Firsts: Live, Love, and Laugh Again.

“After my husband’s death, I would see dads carrying daughters on their shoulders, and I would get so angry,” she said. "I was jealous of the world. I didn’t have my perfect life anymore.”

Rasmussen said it’s important to recognize that you’re in the waiting room, and try not to stay too long.

“What happens is we stay too long, we think that’s our second life, our chapter two,” she said. “We think it’s painful, it’s supposed to be lonely.”

Take baby steps.

Rasmussen says her whole life changed around Christmas the second winter after her first husband passed away.

It was a snowy day in Boston, and the mailman passed by her sloppily shoveled driveway without delivering the mail.

Rasmussen strapped on her boots and ran after him, sobbing.

Five blocks later, she caught up, and the mailman told her to have her husband shovel the driveway.

“I told him, ‘My husband’s dead,’” she said.

Rasmussen walked away with her Christmas cards, and said that was the moment when she officially left the waiting room.

A few weeks later, she went on her first date with the man who would later become her second husband. Soon after that, she received a promotion at work.

The first step toward living again will likely be small, she said. It may be chasing down the mailman, putting away an old photograph, or standing up for yourself at work.

“The big steps keep you in the waiting room because you’re afraid to take them,” she said.