After a Death, the Holidays are a Secondary Loss

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley



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I wish I could say I remember the last Christmas my mother was alive. I should remember. I should have committed every moment to memory because we knew she was sick and that we probably wouldn’t get another holiday season. But her pancreatic cancer diagnosis was new, and I think I was stuck in fight or flight. So instead of remembering, it’s all a blur.

My mom died the following October, less than a year later. And after that, we lost Christmas for a little while. We still hung the stockings and ate the cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. However, try as we may, we could not fill our broken hearts. No matter how much holiday spirit we poured in, it spilled right out the other side.

The loss of the holiday season was one of our first significant secondary losses, but we didn’t realize it at the time. We headed into December thinking the best thing to do was push through as we always had, but we were unprepared for how simultaneously stressed and empty ‘the same old’ would feel without Mom’s presence. It felt like we were reanimated Christmas zombies just going through the motions.

In hindsight, I wonder, had we known to count ‘Christmas with Mom’ amongst the many losses that we needed to grieve, would we have taken a different tack? Perhaps one based in, oh I don’t know, reality? The notion that we could do Christmas the same as we did before was silly. That version of the holidays was gone, and we needed to grieve that fact, plain and simple.


Secondary Loss at the Holidays After a Death:

For those who are new to the term “secondary loss,” we’ve previously explained it in the following way:

“Death does not just create a single hole in one’s life. Instead, the loss can impact many areas of one’s life, creating multiple losses from that “primary loss.” Though it is easy to think that our grief is solely the grief of losing the person we cared for so deeply, our grief is also the pain of the other losses that were a result of the death. You will hear these losses referred to as “secondary losses,” not in the sense that their impact is secondary, but rather that they are a secondary result of the primary loss.”

There are plenty of reasons why a person might experience secondary loss at the holidays after a death. A few include if you:

  • Worry you’ll never feel positive about the holidays again
  • Have to change how you celebrate the holidays
  • Are considering skipping the holidays altogether
  • Feel lost or disconnected from your faith or the values that you believed underpinned the holidays
  • Are mourning for everything your kids have lost
  • Miss how your loved one made you feel at the holidays
  • Are mourning the sense of warmth, safety, wonder, joy, peace, love, etc you felt before experiencing loss

The list of reasons for experiencing secondary loss goes on. We encourage you to consider what holiday-related secondary losses you would add to your own list.


Coping With Secondary Loss at the Holidays:

When you experienced the death of someone you love, there was probably a part of your mind that went to a place of thinking about all the things that will never be the same. And these abstract thoughts may have caused you a degree of anxiety about the future–especially when thinking about dates like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. So, to some extent, you’ve already been wading around in some complicated holiday-related feelings.  

With this in mind, we often suggest that grieving people take their sense of anticipation and use it to plan ahead for the holidays. A significant part of this planning includes thinking about the secondary losses you’re likely to encounter and considering constructive ways to deal with them. By constructive, we mean thinking about ways to cope and find support when you inevitably find yourself crying over your loved one’s box of decorations or their favorite holiday hymn at church. 

Beyond preparing for the difficult smaller moments, you may also need to acknowledge your sense of loss around the holidays as a whole. Things can never go back to exactly how they were–and this is possibly a major loss for you. Perhaps you yearn for the past when everything seemed warm and bright. In contrast, the holidays after a death feel cold and unfamiliar; is this how they will always feel? And if the holidays can’t be how they were, what are they?

If you’re facing a ripple effect of loss, it’s understandable if all you can do this year is survive. I want to reassure you that the holidays, like many other parts of life after loss, can be rebuilt in a way that acknowledges your loved one but still feels meaningful and positive. However, I’m not sure you’re in a place where you’re ready to believe me about this. Maybe you can’t even consider what the future looks like, and that’s okay. So, for now, we simply encourage you to acknowledge all your loss. And if you want further support for coping with loss at the holidays, click below where it says holiday season.


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We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

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23 Comments on "After a Death, the Holidays are a Secondary Loss"

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  1. Pauline Ann  January 4, 2022 at 9:15 am Reply

    I feel for you all, I lost the love of my life 18 months ago after 40 yrs, a few weeks later I sat with my dear cousin when he passed away , 3 months later with my dear neighbour when she passed, then my sister in law, my neighbours husband and my my brother in law , I couldn’t cope with all the loss and thought my life had come to a full stop, my family tried to understand but how could they, I didn’t understand such grief myself or how I should be feeling about anything apart from utter loneliness, lockdown didn’t help either
    but as time went on I began to see a little light and join in when Covid allowed, got up and dressed took more interest in things and started to look forward to Christmas, My life was then turned into utter turmoil again as we learnt that my Aunt , the last of my mothers siblings and a generation had passed away just before her 100th birthday and my darling younger sister was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and given 3 to 10 months survival, she unfortunately only stayed with us for another 6 weeks and left us in the November, I have felt that my sisters sad passing and the 8th since losing my darling husband over the last 2 years
    has been the last straw and I have no sense or strength to even look ahead anymore in case there is no point in going on ,

  2. Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 5:46 am Reply

    This isn’t making the holidays getting any better. Because last year I lost my father 1/17/2021 and we didn’t even get to be with him because of covid. So Christmas to me is becoming associated more with death and loss than with celebration.

  3. Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 5:41 am Reply

    I always knew that my husband made every birthday and every holiday special. What I didn’t know is that there was grief associated with the loss of the celebration of these events and everytime one comes up I am dreading it. This makes it easy to understand now why and I just am day to day I brought my husband home 12/20/2019 for his last Christmas and to die from having stomach cancer. This has been very tramatic for me as he was my life. He died 1/21/2020. Since then I have moved and tried to settle in my new place. I don’t go out much and of covid lock down was right after that. I met a person recently on line around Thanksgiving on a selling platform where I was selling some items. This person Ill call Harry because that was his name purchased several items from me. We began talking one night and I said or did something that made him laugh and that was what began our 1 month long friendship. Harry was very kind person to me. I filled a need for him to have someone to talk to every day and he filled a need for me, to have a person to talk to every day. He always offered me a kind word, and I made him smile and laugh off which he said he hadn’t done for a long time. I quickly became aware of Harrys serious heart problems and it was shortly after we were getting use to saying hi to one another each day and at that point I began crying for Harry. I began crying tears for Harry because I knew his life was at the end. I also was just getting use to having a friend to say hello to each day and one that did nothing but treat me with kindness each day. And so it was dec 29 2021 that Harry and I shared our last text messages the last 5 minutes of his life before they put him under for the last time. RIP my dear online friend. RIP my dear husband. Until we all meet again.

  4. PB  December 16, 2021 at 12:03 am Reply

    My little sister (19) suddenly and unexpectedly passed in June. I am 19 years her senior and served as more of a mother figure. My grief comes in waves, but I find I am having an extremely hard time right now; the pain feels more acute than it did when she first passed away. When she passed, I had to take on all the responsibility of the funeral, arrangements, and notifying family and friends— my mom could not handle it and my sister’s father had passed away only a year prior. On top of the grief, I’m facing a destabilizing career event and dealing with my father (different from my sister’s father) who is experiencing early onset dementia.

    I feel empty
    I feel like I have no control over what has happened or what will happen
    I am afraid of everything that comes next
    I am tired of presenting as normal right now
    I am losing hope
    I am not looking forward to anything
    I am tired of going through hard things. I am tired of figuring it out. I am tired of figuring out even normal daily life things.
    Even thinking logically through things are hard for me, and I am embarrassed by that.
    I wish I could sleep and wake up 10 years from now.

    My goal is to just get through the year. Mostly going through the motions and trying not to fall apart during this holiday season; my husband, mom, and little brother (18) need me.

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  5. Sandra  December 15, 2021 at 5:50 am Reply

    Can you grieve a son with a drug addiction. He has been through a lot of grief to. His girlfriend and him broke up and he lost his nana( my mom) and a very good friend.

  6. J  December 13, 2021 at 9:23 pm Reply

    My brother died by suicide in February. Nothing has been the same since. My long divorced parents are both going through their own separate depressions in dealing with the loss. Fir my mother it was because it happened in her home with her there, and for my father it was because he was ill and couldn’t race into town to see him and say goodbye while they kept him alive on life support for organ donation.

    My other siblings have moved away and I’m the only one nearby my mother. She doesn’t want to deal with Christmas this year and frankly neither do I. But I’m being pulled to travel quite far for it to my in-laws and do not want to go. At all. I cannot deal with the people( a party) and my anxiety is such the last few months that the traveling/flying part may break me. I don’t feel understood in this and it makes me angry. I’ve stayed home before and my spouse and our child have gone, while I stay home with my young adult child who has traveling anxiety.

    This year also brought illness for me and a lot of issues for my son( who is on his own now) and I just can’t leave him and my mom behind to deal with their grief at this time as well.

    I’m actually angry at the insistence I travel on the first Christmas without my brother. I’m barely hanging on from his death and is it wrong that I find it unfair that anyone would expect me to go anywhere right now?

    Part of me feels selfish but part of me says no. But I just don’t know how to communicate it especially this last minute.

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    • Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 5:51 am Reply

      I personally would just come out with it and tell him you can’t your not up to it and hope he understands. I have gotten to the place where I accept all my grief at any time, and for however long is necessary. I can’t tell anyone if it will be better 1 day 1 year 5 years I can’t say. What I can say is I decided to allow myself and accept whatever it is I need to do to allow this grief to run through me and be as comfortable as possible. Im sorry for your loss and believe me when I say I understand how you’re feeling.

  7. Sarita Coffiel  December 11, 2021 at 6:41 am Reply

    My fiancé was sick with COVID and was quarantining in a separate room while I cared for him for 2 weeks. One early morning I went to check on him and I found him dead. Me and my son were traumatized and still did CPR even though he was cold we didn’t want to lose him we still thought this life saving act would bring him back, but it didn’t. My fiancé passed away 8/20/21 it will be 3 months 12/20/21 and this holiday season is a huge blur. There are days I’m uncontrollably crying and all I do is fine myself at his grave. There are days I’m just blank . All I do is work and school. I don’t go anywhere else. I feel like this is a dream, and when I wake up this will all be over.

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  8. Mel  December 9, 2021 at 12:54 pm Reply

    “Are mourning the sense of warmth, safety, wonder, joy, peace, love, etc you felt before experiencing loss”
    “…Maybe you can’t even consider what the future looks like…”

    I’ve suffered many losses before, but I have not found any forum where the type of overwhelming grief I’m feeling now is even being spoken of. But the above quotes reflect general portions of it. It is a grief so all-encompassing, I never would have imagined experiencing anything like it in my lifetime. And perhaps I’ll be a lone voice in the wilderness here.

    It is a grief like no other. I am grieving over the death of the whole structure of the world as we knew it – certainly a needed dismantling before a positive re-birth is possible, but a terrifying process nonetheless, and one which I may not live to see the fruition of. And it’s the exponential loss of the Web of Life across the whole planet. It’s the loss of the man-made (vs God-given) ‘rights’ and freedoms that never really existed. It’s the loss of both societal and imaginary constructs, and dreams that now cannot be created as they were. It’s the loss and letting go of relationships among family and friends.

    And in the new year, potentially the loss of all income and any viable means to replace it later in life (so no holiday gifting or feasting, either), and so also the loss of everything worked so very hard for over our adult lives. Worse, this latter portion may ultimately lead to our own family’s slow and torturous physical deaths as well, with nowhere and no one left to turn to for help.

    I am hurting so deeply in the face of all this that frivolities such as decorating, ‘celebrating’ anything during this ruinous time, or hiding behind denial and acting “as if” anything is anywhere near normal (or ever will be again) feels preposterous and repugnant. For the first time ever, I won’t even be setting up my beloved memorial trees for only us to see. The most I can consider is a candlelight service for my eternally-loved ones, and adding invocations for a future that may not even exist much longer for us.

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    • Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 4:44 am Reply

      I totally understood this when I read it and I must say there are so many people with this grief and I don’t even think we realized this is what we are grieving. I didn’t even realize that with all the deaths I am grieving that this is as well part of the grief Im feeling as well. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Jennifer  December 9, 2021 at 8:51 am Reply

    My son was killed in October of 2019 and the thought of having to celebrate Christmas was impossible at the time. My daughter and I decided to travel and spent the week on the beach in Mexico. It was one of the best decisions I made in the months after his unexpected death.

    The following year, I still wasn’t ready to celebrate the holidays. I couldn’t bring myself to take out the boxes of holiday ornaments and the memories of happier times. So, we headed off to another Caribbean destination.

    Now, facing the third Christmas since his death, I am more prepared to celebrate. I recently moved and I think that has also helped my healing and ability to celebrate the season. I kept a few of our special ornaments, but decided to keep the majority of my older decorations in storage.

    In my grief journey, I have learned that I need to respect the past and bring forward those small meaningful mementos and traditions, but at the same time build new traditions. My life is forever changed and holding on to all of the trinkets and keeping things the way “they always had been” was much too painful when the truth is that it can never be the same as it always was because my son is not here.

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  10. J W  December 9, 2021 at 7:32 am Reply

    First time this year and totally conflicted re what to do at Christmas
    Everything seems half empty and no motivation to do anything festive …. Can’t believe how my life has changed so quickly since he died in August 2021- seems even more surreal during this pressure period
    Yes getting invitations and lots of family support but there is push pull going on in my head re family obligations and my own needs

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  11. Sandra  December 8, 2021 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Exactly, going back to when everything felt warm and bright with mom here in the holidays, now it’s just not the same, it makes me so sad, we had wonderful Christmas’s growing up, and when I got married mom and her husband would come to our house for Christmas dinner, we would go to her house in the afternoon and open gifts and eat, then they came over for dinner. Now I don’t have any of this, it’s such a loss, and now that Ray is gone( her husband) it’s more grief, this year I’m really not in the Christmas spirit at all but I’m pushing through the best I can for me and my family, I use to love Christmas until my mom died.
    And not many family members will be here this year, my one son relapsed with his drug addiction, and is in treatment, my brother isn’t coming because he scared of the new variant of Covid, we’re all vaccinated but he doesn’t feel comfortable. So it will be my other son me, my daughter and husband, no grand children either this year, I’m pretty depressed about all this and very lonely, things have changed to drastic for me, and it makes me cry a lot.😢 Sad in Canada

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    • Bella Magno  December 17, 2021 at 5:14 pm Reply

      My son passed away so sudden a car accident
      November 8 this year 2021 early 3:30am. First denial and WHY? A good kid, quiet, kind, nice and the best part is very smart. His sister calls him “BRAINIAC”. He was 25 years old the time of the accident. Spent 6 years in college graduated as Pharmacist. Getting a call from my daughter the first time she said mom Rolland was into accident I will call you where I going to pick him up. I’ll call you. Waited half an hour and she said mom Rolland is dead. My heart sunken and my body wants to die. I asked WHY him. No goodbye to anyone. Now every day, hour, minute and seconds I think of him and cry. I don’t know how to cope from grieving.

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      • Priyanka shah  January 2, 2022 at 2:25 am

        Hii Bella,
        I can feel your pain.I too lost my daughter in October she was just 9 a beautiful ,kind ,loving kid . . Just hold on to life and trust God.

  12. Sandra  December 8, 2021 at 11:02 pm Reply

    I’m going through a secondary grief, my moms husband just passed away in Sept 2021, and we are going to be putting my moms home up for sale, and I feel the grief very intense. We had so many great Christmas’s in her home lots of memories, it feels like mom died all over again. So is this considered secondary grief?

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    • Eleanor Haley  December 9, 2021 at 12:47 pm Reply

      Absolutely, Sandra. The loss of a home is an extremely difficult secondary loss. Especially if it’s a home you grew up in or where you shared many memories with a loved one who’s no longer alive. We’ve actually written on this topic in the past. You may find this article helpful: https://whatsyourgrief.com/saying-goodbye-to-a-home/

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  13. Judy  December 8, 2021 at 6:52 pm Reply

    I lost my husband Jan of this year l miss him so much l talk to him all day l dread the holidays coming up l just want to be left alone and grieve l haven’t change anything since he passed His clothes and all his belongings are still were they were when he passed That way l fill like he is still here l don’t know if l will ever get over his death. We did everything together l ask God everyday to take me so l can be with him. I love him so deeply

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    • Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 8:15 am Reply

      I have felt exactly the same sometimes because me and my husband did everything together and he made all special occassions special and I cant keep up or replace the joy he brought on these holidays and birthdays so hang in there I have felt the same way.

      • Sharon B  December 30, 2021 at 8:18 am

        and I still have most of his clothes and his last pair of shoes that he wore by the back door like they always were. If that makes me feel he is here with me in some small way then it is ok. It has been 2 years almost since I lost him to stomach cancer. He was 51 years old something i definitely didnt expect.

  14. AB  December 8, 2021 at 5:23 pm Reply

    My dad died in July 2020. We couldn’t have a service for him for a year because of the pandemic. I felt some peace after that, but this will be my second Christmas without him and I still feel like skipping the holidays all together. Nothing will ever be the same and I don’t at all feel warm and safe and happy. It’s also still the pandemic, so everything has that black cloud over it. I am sick of all of this death, disease and turmoil.

  15. Moe  December 8, 2021 at 2:36 pm Reply

    My mom passed in April. She was in and out of hospital all year. She broke her hip March of 2020 and it was ups and downs. She passed unexpected due to rare respiratory failure disease. It was traumatic. I was her primarily care giver but have 3 sisters. My sisters barely helped. None work, two never even bothered to see my mother in over a year. My mom lived alone, needed a lot of help. I took her in my house off and on throughout the year after each hospital or rehab stay but it was hard. I work full time, have two teenagers one who was applying to college etc getting ready to graduate etc. I also have a wonderful supportive husband. My sisters don’t work snd would not take turns caring for my mom. I did the best I could especially during COVID. I’m grieving many secondary losses. One is relationships with my sisters. They were not good daughters. It pained my mother. (My dad passed 15 years ago) my
    Mom was so good to all of us always helping us with babysitting, giving good advice and being a good friend. I find myself not wanting to be near my sisters. Addiction is part of all 3 lives. They all made excuses or just never showed up for my mom. Now I find myself not wanting a relationship with any of them. They put me and my mom through hell. Is this normal? They act like everything is normal. It’s not. I’m angry and not sure I could ever forgive them. My
    Mom co Stanton worried about all 3 of them, she was stressed and I think it affected her as the respiratory disease she had was from inflammation. I think it was all the heartache and worry they caused plus her medical issues.

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