Keeping the Magic of the Season Alive After Losing a Loved One

Kathlyne Barnum, LMFT, MA
Clinical Counseling Program Supervisor
The Elizabeth Hospice

My parents had a strong desire to provide tradition, create memories and keep the magic of the holiday season alive throughout the years…first for my sisters and me, and then for our spouses and children. This desire to create memories, hold on to traditions, and provide hope for the season became especially relevant in the last four years of my father’s life, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2016. Spending time with him during his favorite holiday became more urgent… special… and tender. After he died in July of 2020, entering the holiday season without him seemed cruel, overwhelming and unfair. A few tips that helped me include:

  • Be around supportive and comforting people. Know that people, even in the same family, grieve differently. Find your tribe. That might be a new friend, a neighbor or your therapist. Find those people who support you and can sit with your grief emotions without judgment or needing to “fix” you.
  • As author and grief expert David Kessler says, “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to explain to others why you might decline a holiday invitation or not decorate the house like in years past, or at all.
  • Have a plan. Whether it’s an exit plan once at an event, a tentative plan of how you’re going to spend the day or deciding what holiday traditions you want to keep or change, having a plan can take the stress off from having to make a quick decision or feeling pressured to do (or not do) something.
  • Have self-compassion. Grief is exhausting! Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Respect what your mind and body are telling you. Slow down and lower your expectations about being at your peak during the holiday season. Drink lots of water. Take naps. Try to eliminate unnecessary stressors. Breathe.
  • Be present. Give yourself permission to smile, laugh and enjoy the company of others and the beauty of the season. It’s true that you can feel two opposing feelings at the same time. I can find myself experiencing the joyfulness of the holiday through my children’s eyes, while at the same time experiencing the sadness and missing my dad’s presence greatly.

My family is now in the second holiday season without my father. And while I continue to get sharp jabs of deep missing, and bittersweet moments of fond past memories, I find that the magic and beauty of the season can also surround me. And, I know that my dad wouldn’t want it any other way.

Kathlyne Barnum is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and a Clinical Counseling Supervisor with The Elizabeth Hospice. She has been practicing therapy with an expertise in grief, loss and bereavement for the past 20 years. Kathlyne’s memories of her dad are always close to her heart and mind. She plans to follow her own advice for keeping the magic of the season alive this holiday season.