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.”

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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.”

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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.” 

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

Yesterday we buried my niece. She bravely
fought lung cancer never losing hope. Her daughter was married on November 5. Seeing the
Photos of the day it's hard to believe she was gone in four weeks.
I found this advice to be very helpful. Thank you

Dear Patricia, we are so very sorry for your loss. We are glad to know the information in this post has been helpful an appreciate you sharing your thoughts on our blog. Sending you our deepest condolences.

Thanks needed this and will past get on to family and friends Smiling.

Dear Terri, we are glad to know that you found the information in our blog helpful. Thank you for your comment.

I lost my mother ...Krystyna Kosmowska. She was 86 yrs old ..she was a great person and patient of MSK.
I just admire her for being so strong and hopefully trusted the wonderful doctors. ...
I miss her desperately. ..

Dear Barbara, we are very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on our blog.

I lost my wife November 1st 2016 it's been extremely hard on my son 16 and myself,she was my rock I planned my whole day around her doctors visit what have you everything now since losing her I don't know where to begin I sit for long hours in my garage where we would have coffee and just stare at the chair she sat in I miss her painfully and I know my son is sinking into depression his mom was the one he always spoke to about everything God help me I need her so badly

Dear Enrique, we are so very sorry for the loss of your wife. You and your son may benefit from speaking with a grief therapist or a support group who can offer some helpful coping strategies. You may ask your physician for a referral or, if your wife was a patient at MSK, you may call our Counseling Center directly to make an appointment at 646-888-0200. For more information about our counseling services (including our bereavement support groups), please visit https://www.mskcc.org/experience/caregivers-support/support-grieving-fa….

Thank you for reaching out to us.

I lost my sister January 20th of this year. I promised her that I would watch over her adult children and grandchildren so once a month, no matter how busy we are, I started a "family dinner" night to keep us connected. It has been very successful for all.
My sister suffered for almost 3 years :fascheitis caused by colon cancer. Final diagnosis discovered by doctors right across the street from you: New York Cornell.
I am glad she is at peace and rid of pain: she suffered through 20 surgeries on her infected leg and 3 surgeries on her colon and surrounding area.
As much as I understand intellectually of her pain and suffering ending, my heart cannot accept this loss and I sob daily.
If I had any words of wisdom after this horrendous sequence of events, it is to tell people: GO FOR ALL SUGGESTED testing: colonoscopy, mammograms, etc.
Doctor told me that early diagnosis through co!onoscopy, would be 100% successful in curing colon cancer.
I had my colonoscopy in July.

Dear Susan, we are very sorry for your loss. Those family dinners are a wonderful idea to keep the family connected. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience on our blog.

My mother passed away March 9, 2013 from stage 4 ovarian cancer at the young age of 59. She passed just a little over a month after my daughter (her first grandchild) was born. My mother and I were inseparable. She raised me on her own and it was her an I against the world since the day I was born. Her passing was so profound for me because she was my world. The birth of my daughter was a true gift from heaven because I believe God knew I needed saving from this pain of grief and my daughter has helped me go on to be happy. I found comfort in this article because it stated that the amount of grief we feel is directly related to the relationship and bond we had with our loved one. My relationship with her was my life and I do feel a huge void now. I find comfort In sharing my story and I helped my best friend who recently lost her mom to lung cancer. I thank MSK doctors on Long Island because when others gave up on my mom, MSK gave my mom another 6 months to live through a trial drug. Happy Holidays.

Dear Annie, we are so sorry for the loss of your mom, but we are glad to know that your found this article useful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience on our blog.

Thanks for sharing this.

It was just two years since I lost my brother Danny to colarectal cancer.we were so close.he seemed to be the only family member that understood me.now he's gone.i miss him so much.a part of my brain still can't process that hes really gone.it still hurts so bad.

Dear Patrick, we are very sorry for your loss. You might find it helpful to speak with a psychologist or counselor about the feelings you’ve been having. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.