Q.  My sister, a single parent, passed away this summer. My husband and I are raising her two children, my 11-year-old nephew and 14-year-old niece. We are all still grieving my sister’s death. It’s hard for me to think of ways to make any of the holidays, especially Christmas, enjoyable. I want them to be a special time though, especially for the kids. Could you offer some suggestions to help? 


 A.  It’s no doubt a time when you and the children may find yourselves feeling sad and perhaps crying a lot at times. Yet, you have made the decision for all of you to be happy if you can. Deciding to be happy is the first step to experiencing it. You can grieve and still find joy in the season.

I hope these suggestions will help you to deal with grief and make the season more enjoyable for you and your family. Some of these practices may also work for people who have lost a partner or spouse as well as those who may experience depression over the holidays.

  1. Have a memorable night in which each family member writes a favorite memory of the person you are missing. Collect these memories in a book. Then each person can share that memory. Memory sharing is one of the best ways to deal with someone’s death.
  1. Talk about the type of holiday the person who died would want the survivors to have. Most likely the answer is a happy one. It can help to celebrate if you know that this is what your loved one would want.
  1. Discuss what past holidays were like and decide which old traditions to continue as well as which new traditions to try.
  1. Focus on the purpose of the holiday, such as the celebration of the birth of the Christ child or new beginnings in the new year. Explore what behavior you want to change as well as what skills you want to learn. Use this time to reflect and move forward.
  1. Get involved in helping to provide something for families who can’t afford holiday meals or presents. Involve your whole family, including the children, in these activities. Arthur C. Brooks, in a piece titled “Feel Happy, Even When You Are Not,” points out that research shows helping others improves feelings of well-being.
  1. Act like a happy person even if you don’t feel happy. There has been research in which half of a group was assigned to act as extroverts and half to act as introverts. The ones assigned to act extroverted had increased feelings of well-being. A number of famous psychoanalysts have used this “Acting As If” strategy in therapy. Ask yourself, “What would a happy person do to make the holidays joyful for the children, my husband and me?” Then take action to do those things for your family.
  1. Ask friends what they are doing to celebrate the holidays. Gather some ideas. Then ask your family which ones they would like to try and add other ideas of your own.

Grieving is a crucial part of the healing process. However, it’s important to be happy too, some of the time at least. Thank you for sharing this question with our readers. I wish you and your family happy holidays.


Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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