Coping with Loss and Illness during Holidays and Celebrations

By by Lyn Lumia

Though the holidays are behind us, they can set the stage for celebrations throughout the year. Dealing with grief and chronic illness can be difficult during the holiday season or any time characterized by celebration. It can be especially challenging if you’re dealing with the death of someone close to you or your own chronic illness. Feelings of grief may be heightened and may seem completely overwhelming. Chronic illness takes its toll by taking your energy or giving you pain, and this makes it very hard to savor celebrations. 

There are effective ways to deal with loss and illness, though each person is different and deals with things in their own unique way. When contending with loss, sharing stories among family or friends, looking at photos of happy memories, or making favorite foods may help. If it feels right, do something to honor your loved one. Set a place for them at the dining table. When my husband passed away, my daughter pulled up his favorite desk chair and put one of his shirts on it while we ate Christmas dinner. It was a beautiful gesture that we all enjoyed together. If you enjoy talking about them, talk about the good times you had as a family and the joy you all experienced during this time.  

Therapists say everyone grieves differently. Grief can come in waves, and you may feel sudden sadness thinking about the loss of your loved one. Try to find a quiet space where you can go and be by yourself or find someone that will support you during your time of need. It may give you a sense of control if you have an exit plan for gatherings just in case you need to leave suddenly. Give yourself permission to create different traditions to introduce new, meaningful ways to honor your loved one’s life. You might cook their favorite meal or watch one of their favorite movies. You can volunteer for a cause they really cared about. Giving back can help you feel so much better emotionally. Focus on doing even small things to help keep them alive in your heart. 

Dealing with chronic illness can also be a challenge during the holiday season. Be kind and understanding with yourself. Reach out to family or friends and talk about your limitations so they can help or be more understanding at family functions. You may have to leave early or lay down and rest, and if the family is aware, it will be easier to deal with if they know what is going on. If you have chronic pain, try to take your pain medication before you go so you will have some pain control. Try to remember that your family loves and cares about you and will understand if you are not feeling your best.  

Gift buying for the holidays or celebrations can be difficult when you are not feeling well. You can make that easier by purchasing online and having the gifts delivered or using simple gift bags rather than wrapping each present individually. Let everyone else do the cooking if you are low on energy. Take a ready prepared pie. It’s easy and they will love it! Remember to be kind to yourself and don’t overdo it. Rest and do self-care when you need it and this will help prevent stress or increased anxiety when navigating celebrations.  

For both grief and illness, it is important to identify limits and opt out of celebrations when you feel inclined to. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel like celebrating or socializing this year. Ask someone to check in on you or call a friend especially on the actual holiday. One person said, “I’ve survived by taking my time, doing what feels right, seeking support from loved ones or friends and honoring my loved ones.” There will be a time that you will think of holiday memories with your lost loved one and you will smile alongside the grief. Joy and happiness will return, even while always missing your loved one. That will never change.  

Finally, don’t feel guilty to celebrate! You may think, “How can I possibly be having fun without my loved one?”, or “How can I possibly celebrate when I am dealing with so much?”. Your loved one would not want you to miss out on opportunities to celebrate. Family, friends, and celebrations can bring you such joy and help you deal with loss or chronic illness. Your holiday season may not be the same as it once was, but there are still opportunities to find joy and peace along the way. 


Mayo Clinic (2022, November 28). Grief and Loss throughout the Holiday season. (Blog post)

CBS News (2023, December 13). How to cope with Grief during the Holidays. (News article)

AARP (2023, November 29). Dealing with Grief during the Holiday Season. (Blog)