How To Navigate Holiday Grief

Featured image: TONL
The holidays are a time for gathering with friends and loved ones. But, what happens when the people you love are no longer here?

Grief: an intense sorrow, usually caused by someone’s death. 

For me, that death was my mother in 2021 and the grief, well, it comes in waves. But it especially hits me hard around the holiday season. 

According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While each person’s grief journey is different, what I will say is that the process is never-ending. On average, I teeter between acceptance and depression. My acceptance stage rests in the notion that my mother is no longer in pain from her battle with cancer, and that as her only child, I have carried out her last wishes almost perfectly. 

Her biggest wish (or should I say, command) was for me to take over, renovate and ultimately move into her home. This is the same home that my mother worked so hard to get and call her own. It was also where she took her last breath. So, when she tasked me with taking over it, I was absolutely terrified. But, I never back down from a challenge—even while grieving. 

Just three short months after we said goodbye to her physically, I was welcoming a team of contractors into my new doors to begin the process of making my mother’s house my new home. It was a full-scale project: From pulling up and replacing the old carpet downstairs with new wood flooring to getting rid of the outdated popcorn ceilings to gutting the upstairs bathrooms. Despite the stress that comes with home renovations, this project was very therapeutic. 

Nearly four months later, I was packing up my one-bedroom apartment to officially move into my newly remodeled abode. I’ll be honest, the first couple of weeks were rough. I cried a lot, and couldn’t sleep in the master bedroom, which was her room. I had never lived within these walls without my mother being just a few steps away, so it was weird—or at least that’s the best way I can describe it. But, surprisingly, once the holidays came around, and I was able to deck the halls with Christmas decor, a new-found wave of peace came over me. It was almost as if my mother’s spirit told me, “you can relax now, I’m here.”

DeAnna Taylor and her mother.

Fast-forward to present day, and I am now gearing up for my third holiday season without her. Like the previous two years, I’ll probably decorate, watch The Sound of Music and maybe even bake a fun dessert—because those were things my mother appreciated. Even beyond the holidays, knowing that I honored her wishes further brings a sense of peace and acceptance to my grief process. Is it easy? Absolutely not. But I know she’s proud, which in turn makes me proud. My home is my sanctuary now. It’s where I feel closest to her. I even have photos of her and my maternal grandmother (also deceased) along the wall of my staircase. Those images serve as daily reminders that they’re indeed watching over me—and the house—and that I will be okay. 

Of course, my experience isn’t necessarily the same for others. In fact, as I was reflecting on my own journey, I spoke with a few of my close friends on how they handle holiday grief after losing a parent. 

“When it comes to handling my grief during the holidays, I’m all over the place,” North Carolina A&T State University Admissions Director of Undergraduate Admissions Dominique Harrison shares. “Some days I try to stay busy or submerge myself in sleep or TV.”

Dominique Harrison and his father.

Harrison lost his father in 2019, and like me, the holiday season is filled with a rollercoaster of emotions. On one hand, he feels joy while gathering with family as they reminisce about their time with him. And, then, there are those moments of solitude when the tears almost unexpectedly flow. 

“The best way I handle [grief] is by being around family, remembering [my father, grandfather and grandmother], honoring them and laughing about the good times I shared with them,” he adds. “When I’m alone, I try to remember the more intimate moments. With my dad, that means those times we would watch or talk about sports together, me listening to him talk about playing against Oscar Robertson in high school or those moments when he would joke with my mom about taking him back. That always makes me laugh.”

For Dontaira Terrell, the holidays can be a little more emotional as it was also her mom’s favorite holiday. The season is a very real reminder of the void that now remains.

“Since my mom’s passing, the holiday season always brings a range of emotions,” says Terrell. “Some days, I am fully engulfed in the holiday spirit, and there are other days on the opposite end of the spectrum when I want to lay in bed all day and do absolutely nothing because the pain of loss runs so deep. To think this was one of my mom’s favorite times of the year, and she isn’t physically here to celebrate with us, is gut-wrenching. Ironically, whenever I feel uneasy, I believe she sends little signs and reminders to let me know she isn’t too far away.”

Dontaira Terrell and her mother.

Rather than letting her grief carry over into a new calendar year, she has implemented her own tradition to serve as an emotional cleanse. 

“To end the year, I also write a love letter to my mom, and it helps me to let out a good cry so that I won’t carry those heavy emotions into the New Year. I’ve realized some are tears of joy, some are sadness, and others were buried and needed to be released.” 

No matter where you are in your grief journey this holiday season, just remember, there’s never a right or wrong way to feel what you feel. As my former therapist always reiterated, you should “always feel your feels” whenever they hit you. Whether that means getting in a good cry during a moment of sadness, hitting the gym for a tough workout when you’re angry, or simply sitting with your memories and letting them carry you.

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