There may be an unexpected guest visiting your family this holiday season — grief brought on by the loss of a relative or dear friend...

Share story

There may be an unexpected guest visiting your family this holiday season — grief brought on by the loss of a relative or dear friend.

You might argue, “We don’t want the sadness of death to take away from the joyousness of the holiday season.” Grief doesn’t need to dominate family feelings, activities or celebrations, but it needs to be acknowledged. What does recognizing grief’s presence mean to the family whose grandpa, father, spouse, cousin or niece died this last year? It means to take time to talk of the missing person. Shed a tear, share a memory, light a candle; work a little time to grieve into each day of the season. Resist sweeping it under the holiday rug, as grief won’t be ignored.

You might think grieving adults shouldn’t talk of their feelings around children. Won’t it hurt their holiday experience if there’s a mention of the deceased relative? Kids can handle it; they’re grieving, too. Everyone, including children, remembers the person who died. By sharing grief, the emotion dissipates.

While it’s impossible to control grief, you can contain it by planning and scheduling time to acknowledge the deceased person’s absence. Grandma can say at the dinner table, “Let’s all take a moment to talk about Grandpa. What present would he be hoping for this Christmas?”

Because of the rituals involved in holidays, it’s easy to start a new one that recognizes the deceased person. One family doesn’t allow anyone to sit in Grandpa’s chair. Another put a picture of the deceased family member on the mantle. You might take time to remember a favorite story or custom the departed family member loved or initiated.

While there’s no guarantee that grief, even when recognized, won’t reappear unexpectedly, by embracing it, it’s more likely that sadness will remain at bay during other activities.

Death is the obvious reason for grief, but there are others. If a family member is alienated or abandoned, grief will follow. While the person isn’t dead, he or she is gone from the rolls of the holiday membership, so grief takes his or her place.

For more information

Recommended book: “Talking About Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child,” by Earl A. Grollman. (Beacon Press, $18).

Because feelings of grief are raw and you and your family might be fragile as you include grief into your holidays, there are a few things you can do to make it easier on everyone:

Be gentle with yourself and your family by slowing down your typical holiday pace.

Protect your family’s energy by decorating, shopping and cooking less.

Resist feeling guilty if you find yourself and your children having fun. Having a good time is not a sign of disrespect for the departed.

Embrace memories; they’ll bring comfort. Memories bring tears and laughter, both which heal feelings of sadness.

Consider an act of remembrance, such as making a donation to a charity in the departed family member’s name.

Because there are not instant fixes for grief, your family’s sadness will continue each holiday. The intense feelings of pain the first year will diminish, but there will always be an empty chair for Grandpa.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.