Dealing With Holiday Blues — By Gail Rubin

No truer words were spoken than when Elvis sang, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.” When the holidays roll around, we especially miss those we love who have died.

From Thanksgiving into the New Year, a few changes to the family’s routines can soften the holiday blues over the death of a loved one.

Break Traditions

Go someplace new at holiday time and make new memories. One Christmas season, a woman at a holiday party spoke about her fifty-six-year-old son who died of a heart attack on Christmas Day the year before.

She and her daughter-in-law planned to go out of town and do something completely different for the holiday. They booked a winter get-away to the Grand Canyon. Other families may wish to go skiing or take a cruise in a warmer climate.

This can be a healthy response — to strike out in a new direction on a tradition-laden day when a loved one is no longer present. It recognizes the “new normal” all families face as they go through mourning, processing grief as time passes.

Include the Deceased

Acknowledging the deceased during the holidays is not morbid or unnatural. It’s okay to share memories. That loved one is probably on everyone’s mind already.

Set up a tabletop memorial to those who have died. In our family, we place large pictures in the dining room of our deceased loved ones. In this way, they are, in a sense, present as the whole family enjoys the holiday meal. This option acknowledges the person’s passing while continuing to observe annual family events.

You might light a candle next to photos of loved ones. You can also play music that invokes their memories, prepare favorite foods or special recipes they were known for making, or bring out old family films and take a trip down memory lane.

Talk About It

Before there is a death in the family, use holiday time together to discuss advance directives and preferences for final arrangements. Having a conversation to share this vital information reduces stress at a time of medical crisis, and it’s strangely liberating!

The nonprofit organization Engage With Grace offers five key questions they call The One Slide Project – so named because all five questions fit on one page. They suggest discussing these questions when the family is gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday:

  • On a scale of 1 to 5, where do you fall on this continuum? (1 being “Let me die in my own bed, without any medical intervention,” 5 being “Don’t give up on me no matter what, try any proven and unproven intervention possible”)
  • If there were a choice, would you prefer to die at home or in a hospital?
  • Could a loved one correctly describe how you’d like to be treated in the case of a terminal illness?
  • Is there someone you trust whom you’ve appointed to advocate on your behalf when the time is near?
  • Have you completed any of the following: written a living will, appointed a healthcare power of attorney, or completed an advance directive?

If you have written down advance directives or living will, does your family know where the papers are located? It’s important to inform the people who will speak for you if you can’t.

Download the One Slide questions from

Change in our lives is inevitable. Family traditions during the holidays remind us of people and times gone by. If those reminders bring sadness, change the traditions to deal with the holiday blues.

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Gail Rubin is author of the award-winning book A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and The Family Plot Blog. The host of A Good Goodbye Radio and TV shows, she’s a Certified Celebrant and death educator who uses funny films to help start funeral planning conversations. Her website is

A Good Goodbye