The first holiday season after a loved one dies can be difficult. Sometimes, holiday celebrations and family gatherings can bring renewed grief even years after the fact. Recognizing your partner’s grief and knowing how to respond can help your spouse have a meaningful holiday even when there is an empty seat at the table.

Be Supportive, But Don’t Try to Fix Your Spouse’s Holiday Grief

Talking about your grief is an important part of the process. As a spouse, you likely will be one of the first people your partner comes to for support. Be gentle and make space to listen to their feelings. Allow them to be sad, angry, and happy without judgment.

Remember it is not up to you to fix your spouse. You cannot control when or how your spouse will move through holiday grief. If they ask for help, provide it, but don’t impose your ideas of what they should be doing onto their grieving process.

Invite Your Spouse to Holiday Events, and Accept if They Say No

Many people who are grieving tend to feel disconnected from family and friends who they feel don’t understand what they are going through. You can help by managing your family’s social calendar. Tell your loved one about neighborhood parties, the kids’ dance recitals, and all the other special events that happen around the holidays. Then let them choose which ones they want to participate in.

Remember that your enjoyment of the holiday does not need to be tied to their participation. If you want to go to your friends’ reunion, but your spouse isn’t up to celebrating, you may go without them.

Manage Family’s Expectations and Intercede When Boundaries Aren’t Respected

Don’t expect your family members to remember or understand that you or your spouse are grieving. Remind them to be gentle and compassionate with your spouse. There may be topics that need to be off limits that season – such as family planning after a miscarriage. To the extent you are able, act as a liaison for your loved one. Step in if a relative isn’t respecting your spouse’s boundaries or is being insensitive to their grief.

However, at the same time remember that your loved one’s emotional state may well fluctuate over the holiday season. Your spouse’s specific relationship with the family member in question may also change the way they interact with their grief. Be sensitive to those changes, and check in with your spouse first, before acting as gatekeeper.

Acknowledge Your Own Holiday Grief, Even If It Is Different

Often, both spouses will be grieving the same lost friend or family member in their own way. Even if the person who passed was an in-law or closer to your spouse you may still experience grief of your own. You may also be saddened or angered by watching your partner struggle with their own emotions. Give yourself space to grieve in your own way and acknowledge that that may look very different from your spouse’s reactions to the loss.

Create New Traditions and Honor Past Practices

When the lost loved one was especially close, such as a parent or child, it may be impossible to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Chanukah without triggering holiday grief. One way to honor that is to create a new tradition honoring the person who was lost. You might:

  • Visit their gravesite with a wreath or grave blanket
  • Light a candle for them
  • Set a place for them at the table
  • Tell stories about them over dinner
  • Include their favorite dish in the meal

If your spouse remembers a past practice the loved one performed, like saying the prayer before the meal, invite them to honor that loved one even as they step into the role.

Work with a Couples’ Therapist to Get Through Holiday Grief

The holidays are a stressful time in the best of circumstances. Grief can put additional strain on what is already a difficult season. If you find that you are not able to support or communicate with your spouse, you may benefit from working with a couples’ therapist, who can guide you to reconnect. By developing new coping strategies and talking through your feelings with a professional facilitating the discussion, you can keep holiday grief, you can keep the season bright for both you and your spouse.

David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps children, teens and adults with bereavement and other psychiatric issues. Contact David Stanislaw to get help today.