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Untraditional: Navigating grief and the holidays in the middle of a pandemic

Untraditional: Navigating grief and the holidays in the middle of a pandemic

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is never easy. But in 2020 … well, let us just say that for most of us, there has never been a year with so much loss, and so few outlets for our grief.

Funerals did not happen, or if they did, they were via Zoom. High school graduates never got their graduation ceremony or prom. Goodbyes to classmates, teachers, friends and coworkers were swift, with no one knowing that in some cases, we would never see each other again.

And now, with the holiday season near, many of us are finding that the old traditions we loved so much cannot happen due to travel restrictions or worries about gathering in large groups. Without our loved ones around, we can feel even lonelier, especially if some of them have passed away. That brings the grief we might have felt months ago right back.

One way to deal with so much loss is to talk about it, according to Kent Mishler, Kaweah Health's Director of Chaplain and Volunteer Services. “Part of grief is the gathering and the opportunity to memorialize people,” he explained. But that has been different in 2020.

People who could not have a funeral for a loved one instead talked on the phone with family and planned for a get-together later. But “now it’s a lot later. It’s never,” he said. “It’s been long enough that it’s never going to happen.”

Death is not the only thing bringing grief to our lives. The world has thrown so many challenges our way during the pandemic. For adults, the issue may be taking care of children at home and balancing the needs or aging parents. “It’s really difficult, all these things, and we don’t know how to handle it,” Mishler said.

Children are struggling, too, not being able to go back to school and losing familiar routines. The places, people, or things that would have comforted them in their grief are gone, making their emotional health more fragile than ever.

Traditions may not occur this year, but we can tell the stories of our parents and our heritage, Mishler says, so the next generation knows how it used to be. “They need to hear about grandma and grandpa back in the good old days,” he says, since they cannot gather to reminisce.

Part of processing grief is doing traditional things, and it is okay to feel happiness and joy in your activities. So put up more decorations than usual, gather your family together and do something positive. Your neighbors will also feel the love and peace seeing the decorations.

For those who need more help processing their grief this time of year, Kaweah Health’s Bereavement Team offers its annual “Grief and the Holidays” workshop, hosted virtually on November 19 and available online to watch at your convenience at This annual program, around for about 15 years, has moved to an online format this year, and will focus primarily on the impacts caused by COVID-19.

For those grieving the loss of a loved one, Mishler has some suggestions. First, use the name of the deceased. “As you use the name, it dulls down that sharp edge. ‘My husband, Fred, died.’” Similarly, do not use euphemisms such as “went to a better place” or “left me.” Those words won’t fill the hole inside you when someone is gone, and it may create questions in the mind of the person you are speaking with.

And think about how this year offered opportunities, not just loss. Are there traditions that you do because you feel like you have to, even though no one really likes them? Here is the chance to make some new traditions that better fit your current lifestyle and desires. You do not have to make Grandma’s sweet potato recipe or read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” anymore if you don’t want to.

Finally, know your limits. If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do something, say you cannot do it. If you do go to an event or to visit others, have an exit strategy, a code word or signal that lets someone know you need to leave.

Be kind. Everyone is going through something this year. “I know we’re going to get through this,” Mishler says. “You may feel like you are behind where you feel you should be but you have to move forward at your own pace.”

So step back and take back what you lost. Say goodbye to the classmates you did not get to graduate with, the friends who had to move away, and celebrate loved ones who’ve passed away. Let people know you miss them. Rejoice in what is, design your own holiday.

And wish for a better 2021 for everyone.

Learn MoreThe mission of Kaweah Health Hospice is to provide physical, emotional, social, and spiritual support to terminally ill patients, as well as their families and loved ones, while assisting patients and families to live with dignity and comfort as they cope with end-of-life issues. Learn more online at