How to survive the holidays if you’re facing grief

The holidays can be stressful and triggering -- especially if you’ve recently lost a loved one, are battling a serious illness or injury, or going through a nasty breakup. All the forced good cheer can make things worse.

Rabbi Steve Leder, author of “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us,” offers advice.

Leder draws on his own experiences. This year’s Thanksgiving happened after his father died and his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. His family decided not do anything for the holiday.

“Lesson number one is really honor the emotional space that you’re inhabiting during the holidays. If you’ve had a terrible loss, if you’re suffering, be kind to yourself, and say no.”

Leder also says that behind every “no” is a “yes.” It’s an opportunity to mitigate stress and be careful about how you spend energy. “Grief is exhausting...And if you don’t give that grief the physical and emotional resources required, it will just sink you lower and lower and lower.”

For some, being around people can help with grief, but Leder says it has to be the right people -- who don’t require you to to pretend to be happy or okay.

“The people who will grant the opportunity to take a moment -- not only to express what we're grateful for, but also what we miss. The people who will grant the opportunity to hang an ornament on the Christmas tree that reminds you of that absence that is so present during the holidays. People who will allow a moment to pause, and to light that candle in honor of a loved one who has died. People who will hold hands with you and support your effort to remain sober,” he explains.

Volunteering could be personally uplifting too. Leder shares that five years ago, he went through a tough recovery for a spinal surgery, and was briefly addicted to opioids and depressed. Then for the holidays that year, instead of attending parties, he served Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter.

But Leder says the worst thing you could say to someone grieving is: “Let me know if you need anything.” That puts the burden of responsibility on them.

“I would reach out and anticipate what the person needs...For example, like ‘we'd like to have you there, we're going to keep it very small so that it's comfortable for you. Here's who's coming. Are you okay with that?’ ”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney



  • Rabbi Steve Leder - senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of “The Beauty of What Remains: How our Greatest Fear Becomes our Greatest Gift” - @Steve_Leder