The Empty Spot at the Christmas Table – Celebrating the Holidays After a Loss in the Family

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Christmas can often be the most emotional and difficult time of the year for families who have lost a loved one. The holiday season is all about family, love and connections and this can be heart-breaking when there is someone recently deceased who is missing from the festivities. The grieving loved ones will experience sorrow, guilt, loneliness, depression and anxiety – which are all normal reactions when grieving the death of a loved one.

Every family will deal with grief differently, but is it important to deal with the feelings you are experiencing rather than hiding them away – which will make them even more painful and difficult. How can your family work together to get through the holidays when you have recently lost someone? Here are a few suggestions that might work for you.

Create a Special Tribute in Their Honour

Many families find it comforting to create a special tribute for their loved ones during the holiday season. Perhaps they will still set a place at the dinner table, or light a candle and say a prayer in honour of their soul. Some families like to choose a personalised Christmas tree ornament (like the ones at to honour their family member. This could become an ongoing Christmas tradition, so that the deceased family member is still thought of every year and is part of the Christmas festivities.

Reminisce About Times Gone By

Some families will go around the table, each sharing a story about the deceased – bringing back all of the memories of the good times that you shared together. Although it can be difficult to reminisce in this way, it can also be part of the process of healing. Perhaps your family might want to look through photo albums, which can also help to spark great family memories.

It is important to express your feelings about the loss, rather than stuffing everything down and not talking about it. It’s okay to cry and be sad, but it’s also okay to laugh and enjoy yourself with the rest of your family.

Create a New Tradition

In some cases, families find it difficult to celebrate traditions in the same way – because everything is too familiar and the sense of loss is so strong. It can be helpful to do something totally different in order to help the family move on. Perhaps you could gather for a family meal at someone else’s house or even go away on a holiday during Christmas. Doing something different can really help to cope with the loss – especially the first Christmas after the death.

Let Go of Your Guilt

For some people, celebrating Christmas after the death of a family member makes them feel guilty. They feel like they are betraying their loved one by celebrating the festive season and being happy, even though they are gone. Some people even feel like they want to boycott the entire season due to these conflicting feelings of guilt, depression and sadness.

However, there is no need to feel guilty about continuing to celebrate family traditions even when someone has passed away. The deceased would want you to get together with family and have an enjoyable Christmas, even though they can’t be there. It is a chance to make their memory part of your Christmas celebration so that you can cry, laugh, hug and heal together.

Do Something to Help Others

It can be very helpful to the healing process if you take the time to help others around Christmas time. You could volunteer in an orphanage, a soup kitchen or a nursing home – bringing joy to others who need it most. This is an incredibly rewarding experience that many people say has helped them to overcome their grief.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Going through the grief of losing someone is exhausting and it can make the simplest tasks sometimes feel very overwhelming. This means that Christmas planning, organisation, decorating and cooking might sometimes feel like an expedition up Mount Everest, even though you were totally capable of doing it all last year.

Remember to go easy on yourself and don’t expect that you will be able to manage things as well as you usually can. There is no shame in asking friends, neighbours and family members for help – they will likely be happy to do whatever they can. Also, don’t be worried about taking on less responsibility this year, people will understand.

Try to simplify your tasks as much as possible, such as shopping during a time when the stores are not busy. Also, if you don’t get everything done that you had planned – don’t feel guilty about it.

The most important part of surviving Christmas after losing a loved one is keeping your other loving family members and friends close to you. You can lean on each other, cry together, laugh together and help each other heal during this difficult time.

Paula Wilson is a freelance writer and blogger. She writes about families, relationships and health. A few years ago, her brother passed away from cancer a few months before Christmas – she lights a candle and sings his favourite Christmas carols for him every year. 

Sarah Pinkerton

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