The holidays can be exhausting for grievers. Here’s how to help

An illustration of an eye crying a tear shaped like a holiday ornament.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Just before the holidays, there’s a different celebration in my life: my work anniversary at the Los Angeles Times. For the last five Novembers, LinkedIn has alerted my professional network. Each year, I get a lot of well-meaning, kind words. And it destroys me.

My work anniversary will forever be a reminder of how long my older brother, Clinton, has been dead. November 2017 was when we learned his brain cancer was back. December was when he had surgery, and we had hope. And then everything went wrong. January was when we said goodbye.

Shortly after the LinkedIn messages (that I can’t bring myself to read) came in this year, I started to notice the familiar shifts in my body and mind. I lost time. Where did the last hour go? I became forgetful. Did I feed the dog? Cat? Did I take my medicine? Had I eaten? I felt suddenly tired, deep in my bones, my body gearing up for the long slog through the holidays and a thousand tiny memories of Clinton’s last days. These experiences are as seasonal for me as the annual reemergence of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte.

This week’s edition of Group Therapy will be a bit different. Our dear writer, Laura Newberry, is off this week, and I’m filling in. I’m Jaclyn Cosgrove, assistant editor of mental health at The Times. I edit this newsletter and oversee The Times’ yearlong mental health initiative, For Your Mind. Today I’ll be writing about how we can better support our family and friends grieving through the holidays. I welcome your follow-up questions and thoughts.

Our experts this week are several fellow grievers, including the friends I’ve made through the Compassionate Friends support group, which has served as a vital space for my healing.


I asked them a few simple but important questions:

  • What do you wish people understood about grief, and specifically your grief, during the holidays?
  • What are the common mistakes, from your perspective, that people make around grief during the holidays?
  • What, if anything, has someone (like the host of a dinner) done during the holidays to honor your loved one?
  • What else?

I invite you to ask these questions to the grievers in your life, as I think you’ll learn a lot from their answers.

Understanding grief during the holidays

My brother, Clinton, died Jan. 25, 2018, shortly after midnight, as my family sat around him, trying to comfort him as he suffered through his last seizure. “Amazing Grace” was playing on my sister-in-law’s phone as Clinton took his last breath. He was 34.

I’ve processed that memory through EMDR, a type of somatic therapy that Laura mentioned in last week’s newsletter. But there are so many other memories leading up to his death day, many of them around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and then his birthday. It all comes back to me, every single year.

Like Dec. 14, 2017, when I flew to Oklahoma for his brain surgery, fully believing Clinton would be OK because he recovered so quickly after his first surgery in 2016.

Dec. 15, his surgery day. Dec. 18, flying back to Los Angeles after speaking to a fully cognizant Clinton for the last time. Jan. 10, his birthday, when my sister-in-law called me and told me the doctor said Clinton had two more weeks to live. That day, on a flight, sobbing in a window seat as the passenger next to me ate hummus and crackers and drank a green juice.

Jan. 11, alone in his hospital room as I tried to tell him how much I loved him, how I would always love him, as he stared at me, unable to say much.


This year, Year 5, is the first where I actually feel some kind of something toward Christmas. I want to buy a real tree, something I’ve never done. I’m excited to decorate it. But I’m not necessarily any less destroyed that Clinton isn’t here. That he won’t wake us all up on Christmas Day by blowing through an animal horn. That I won’t get to hear him exclaim, “Cool!” as he opens a gift that truly surprises him. That he isn’t here to see his precious hilarious 6-year-old daughter open gifts, an experience I both deeply love watching and feel guilty to be the one who gets to see it.

In talking to dozens of grievers, I found that I’m not alone in being exhausted not just by the holiday gatherings but also by the entire season — regardless of how long it has been. As my friend Lynn pointed out: “My father passed on a holiday, and when I go to the store and see stuff for the holiday, depression starts. I haven’t been able to celebrate it since the death of my father, and this year marks 25 years.”

Erin — whose sister, Autumn, was killed by a drunk driver almost 18 years ago, just before Autumn’s December birthday and Christmas — explained the complexity of feeling joy around the holidays.

“Every holiday it’s one less person at the table, one less person laughing, one less gift to give,” she said. “For me, December is the darkest month. I try my hardest to ignore the date of her death and it makes me angry when I can’t. I think about how old she would be now, and how long I’ve outlived her. I feel guilty for experiencing a life that she never had the opportunity to build. This year is especially hard because she’s been gone the same amount of time that she was alive.”

It’s important to note that it’s hard on grievers during the holidays, regardless of the day or month that their loved one died. Jesse, Gidi’s mama, explains: “I wish that people understood how every food, every song, every ritual and every hug reminds me of my son. There is no escaping his absence. I wish people understood that I can be, and usually am, experiencing a range of emotions all at once. I can still experience joy and also experience pain, and allowing myself to experience both at once is integral to my experience as a grieving human.”

Honoring their lives

We Americans have very strange, and hurtful, societal “rules” around talking about grief, especially around the holidays. In short, the rule is: Don’t. As Pam, who lost her son Michael in 2016, points out, that usually does more harm than good.


“One of my greatest sorrows is that my family (and I’m one of nine with six living) has never offered any words of honor for Michael,” Pam said. “No one mentions him. No one asks how I’m doing at any given occasion or time. My heart breaks and I do get angry. I want to shout: ‘Michael lived.’”

Stormi told me about how after her husband died in October 2011, and she gave birth to their daughter that December, it was made more painful by how she was treated.

“That first Christmas was the best and worst of my life,” she said. “I was a mom at Christmas for the first time, and also a widow. The thing that was hardest for me was how people looked at me. I just wanted to feel like my world was falling apart, and I couldn’t even walk into a room without all eyes on me. Super sad eyes at that.”

I think part of what hurts so much in having our grief ignored is, we feel so isolated in that pain, all the while existing in a cruel ironic hellscape of jingle bells and avoidance where everyone around us is also hurting, missing that person too.

We need to learn as families and as a society how to sit with our pain together. But how do we do that? How do we invite the elephant in the room over to have a slice of pumpkin pie? It starts with acknowledgment. Almost every griever I spoke with wanted their family and friends to say the name of their deceased child, sibling, parent or other loved one. We want you to share memories and photos of them. We want to know you still hold them in your hearts.

When we bring them up, please don’t dismiss us, even if it’s a well-intentioned way to get us to move on. One friend said “let’s talk about something else” is not a good strategy: “No, I want you to remember this person as much as I do. I want to know that you still remember them. That they didn’t get swept under the rug.” And it’s not helpful “telling me that I’m only making myself miserable by doing small little things to remember my loved one during the holiday season.”


In the case that you fear a loved one might not have fond memories, it can be even more important to acknowledge our heartache. “Some years it hits hard, other years it doesn’t. But you won’t know what it’s like for me that year unless you ask,” a friend, who was estranged from her father when he died, told me. “People think they’re doing the right thing by not talking about it, but that’s total BS — even in a complicated grief story like mine.”

Although some people said their families had never acknowledged the loss, which has been deeply painful, others told me about how the hosts of their family dinners made sure every year to leave a space at their table for their loved one who died.

Sheila, whose son Luke died of a heroin overdose in 2016, told me about how her sister invited her family to come back to Europe that first Christmas. “Come and ruin ours because it’s ruined already,” her sister told her.

“It was a clear acknowledgment that they had no expectations. Genius!” Sheila said. “We were now seven, but all the tables where we sat to eat were for eight. The servers would hurriedly start to remove the extra plate — and every time my sister would insist that they left it, for Luke. 6 years later, tears fall as I recall this.”

Another key point that Sheila made: Include our deceased loved ones’ names in your holiday cards to our families. “The salutations to the three living members of our family are agony,” she wrote in a blog honoring Luke’s life. “All I see is the gaping hole where Luke’s name would once have been. Each card, a reminder that we have lost our Luke. We all see it.”

** A quick note: Some people are grieving the loss of a family member who is still living but that they’ve cut ties with because that person is not safe to be in their lives. This is a complicated type of grief multiple people contacted me about, and while these grievers still very much need your love, acknowledgment and support, they might not want to talk about that person.


What else?

This Christmas, I am looking forward to hearing my sister-in-law take out Clinton’s blowing horn to alert us it’s time to open gifts. In the past five years, she’s gotten pretty good at it. At the dessert table, I’ll take a slice (or three) of a Clinton-inspired dessert that I’ve made for our family, probably something with pistachios. And I’ll try to find a way at family gatherings to mention and honor not only Clinton but also my beloved aunt, Elaine, whom we lost to COVID last year, and my other uncles and cousins who went before her.

The holidays will always be tinged with memories of how Clinton suffered and died. But through the love of my family and friends, I can be shaken back into consciousness, reminded through the memories they share and the love they still hold for my brother of how he lived.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share with us your perspectives on grief around the holidays. We might use them in a future newsletter.

Until next week,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

People tend to give you a lot of books after someone dies. Some collect dust. Others, like “Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome,” were helpful for me as I navigated a lot of complicated feelings around being a sibling in grief.

Each year, Compassionate Friends chapters across the country hold candle-lighting events to honor the lives of their members’ deceased children, grandchildren and siblings. This year, some will be virtual while others are in person. Learn more here.

Knowing how to ask for help in the midst of grief is hard. This short list provides a good blueprint of how to help others help you.

Other interesting stuff

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Campus religious groups step into a new realm: mental health counseling. They’ve long counseled students grappling with issues of faith or spirituality and are now adding mental health clinicians in campus religious hubs, and training religious leaders to know when to refer students to psychological care.

Rehab gave a reality TV producer tools that saved his life. Now he’s giving back. Joel Relampagos founded Change Your Algorithm, which provides free mental health classes for those who can’t afford rehab or therapy.


Middle school and high school students in Monterey County have been developing a mental health strategy for their community with such potential that a study on it was recently published in a peer-reviewed journal. Read more about the Gonzales Youth Council’s work here.

Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.