Losing a Loved One to Cancer: How to Cope with Grief During the Holidays

Orange candle burning

It can be helpful to seek support by connecting with the counselors at MSK or religious organizations.

The holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, certainly. But for anyone who’s lost a loved one — whether within the year that past or many years ago — it can also bring a unique sadness.

On November 16, a group of caregivers who’d lost loved ones to cancer came together with MSK experts to learn about how to deal with grief at a time when the merriness of the season can be a little hard to take.

MSK clinical social worker Kimarie Knowles moderated the candid, poignant discussion with panelists Reverend Jill Bowden, clinical psychologist Wendy Lichtenthal, and clinical social worker Melissa Stewart.

“For many people, the holidays are a marker of time passing,” said Dr. Lichtenthal. “A part of time passing is processing the reality of the loss they’ve experienced. It can be more difficult depending on where each person is individually within their grieving process.”

The panel offered words of wisdom for people dealing with the absence of a loved one during the holidays.

Reevaluate Rituals

As with most advice about coping with loss, it’s an individual choice whether or not to keep up the traditions that a loved one used to do each holiday season. Maintaining them could be cathartic — or it could just feel painful.

If the usual holiday routine feels comforting, go with it. “You can eat the same meal, bring in the person’s favorite flowers, or play songs they loved,” said Ms. Stewart.

This can actually create a “sense of presence,” said Dr. Lichtenthal.

If rituals do feel too painful, take the chance to try and mix it up. “It’s a great opportunity to revise things you didn’t actually enjoy but just did for the sake of tradition,” Ms. Stewart added.

Whatever you decide, let those you’ll be celebrating with know that you’re comfortable talking and reminiscing about the person you lost, if you are. “It can be difficult to be in a group where no one says the person’s name,” says Rev. Bowden. “Say it. Keep the loved one present. It builds closeness with friends and family and gives them permission to share more difficult things with you.”

Seek Support

It can be hugely therapeutic to be surrounded by others who’ve experienced what you have. “People who haven’t had the experience of grief can have a more difficult time understanding what you’re going through,” said Rev. Bowden.

It can also be helpful to connect with the counselors at MSK or religious organizations, said Dr. Lichtenthal.

As for dealing with well-meaning family members, tell them what you need, Dr. Lichtenthal said. “You can tell people you just need them to say, ‘That sounds really hard’ or ‘I can’t imagine.’ You can instruct people. They don’t know what you want — they often just want to fix things.”

Ignore It All

Ultimately, if you just can’t deal, you don’t have to. “We can only handle what we can handle, as we can handle it,” said Ms. Stewart. “Distraction is a healthy, reasonable, appropriate coping mechanism.”

What’s more, it’s perfectly normal — and in fact can be a respite — to separate yourself from the power of your emotions when you need to. Trust your own instincts if you feel the need to block it all out for a while.

 “We need to move back and forth between these intense feelings,” says Ms. Knowles. “There may be times that you don’t experience the painful feelings of grief and you instead feel moments of relief. That’s common.” 

Set Realistic Expectations

You might think you’re perfectly capable of handling all the social commitments of the season and fully plan to partake — and then find yourself unable to go through with it when the time comes. Give yourself a break.

“The truth is that you may not feel up to it,” said Ms. Stewart. “Set some parameters. Build some kind of safety net. Let the host know in advance. It can take a lot of wherewithal and courage to have that conversation, but it tends to work out better in the long run.”

Similarly, if you’re the one that always hosts family and friends, give them a heads up that you’d be OK with someone else taking over this year. “You don’t realize how many different ways grief affects you,” said Rev. Bowden. “Give someone else the chance to step up.”

Look Out for Signs of Depression

It’s common for people who’ve been dealing with grief for a long time, or from those who feel it particularly intensely, to wonder if their sadness has crossed the line into depression.

“Grief and the blues may overlap but can also be distinct,” said Dr. Lichtenthal. “With depression, your may lose your sense of hope and may have negative feelings about yourself and your place in the world. Depression is less about the person you lost and more about yourself and your future. Grief is more about the lost relationship.”

There are physical symptoms too, like difficulty sleeping and appetite changes, that delineate depression from grief.

If you are not able to do the things in your life that you need to do, you should talk to someone, said Rev. Bowden. “Don’t sit alone with this. Recognize when complicated grief might be putting a block in your way for moving forward.”

Accept the Grief

For many people, giving themselves permission to feel lousy is the hardest part of grieving. “Being OK with feeling badly can ultimately make you feel a little better,” said Dr. Lichtenthal.

There’s power in accepting a new reality, said Ms. Knowles. “It’s possible that nothing will replace this loss or make it better, but accepting this rather than looking for ways to fix it can be helpful.”

In the same way, there’s also no prescription for how you’re supposed to feel after losing someone close to you — and there should be no guilt if you feel better than you think you should. “People think they are supposed to be feeling a specific way, but they’re not,” Dr. Lichtenthal added. “What you feel is largely affected by the nature of your relationship with the person you lost.”

Appreciate the Good

Though the holiday season may raise the emotional stakes, it can also be a serene, reflective, peaceful time of year, even if you’re dealing with loss.

“Take time to notice the moments that are gentle and soft,” said Ms. Stewart. “Rest in those little pockets of softness and balance.”

And keep in mind that you’re not stuck in one emotional place, said Rev. Bowden. “There’s going to be a hard thing, and then there’s going to be a moment of beauty. There’s going to be a moment of grief, and then a moment of happiness. Just keep going.”