The Not-So Happy Holidays: Coping with Both Conflict and Loss during the Holidays

“Are you ready for Christmas?”
That\’s a loaded question for some of us! Most would say “T\’is the season to be jolly,” but for millions of Americans, the holidays are a time of overt or implicit avoidance, seeping sadness, unshakeable anger and anxiety. Why?  While there are a host of reasons for the holiday blues, issues related to our family can cause significant distress. Let\’s consider two family-related reasons and some strategies to help put the happy back in our holidays.

Those who are Missing from the Table

Families are filled with traditions and no time like the holidays demonstrates this very thing. What are we left to do when grandma\’s house, the meeting space for our family fellowship, no longer has grandma there? We want to see and embrace our deceased loved one, be comforted by their presence, and inform them about what is happening in our world. We cannot because they are gone and it feels like with them a piece of our heart and identity are also missing.  The holidays amplify the grief that is fresh or somewhat dormant regarding a lost loved one.

While death is the most unchanging culprit that takes away our loved ones, there are other reasons for empty dinner table seats. For instance, the missing spouse, who is now the “ex,” the prodigal child who is lost and “out there”, or even the relatives that just cannot make it this season due to illness or financial constraints. This season, at its best, creates and showcases the best of our family narrative. However, for some, what seems like an “unsootheable” sadness meets them day-to-day. I would suggest just a couple of ways to meet the challenge concerning those missing from the table.

Missing Loved Ones Tip #1: Prepare for the Pain

When you go running you wear the right shoe, right? Just like running for the first time in a long time can be painful, grueling and never-ending, entering the holiday season with grief can feel the same way. Nevertheless, like with running, it gets better—especially when we prepare for the pain. What might that look like? For some of us, it includes posting Scriptures on our fridge that remind us that in our weakness God reveals His strength. Also, instead of not mentioning our lost love one, we may fully embrace their memory by incorporating a time when we share a sweet memory about the person. For those who are missing from the table for unsavory or conflict-filled reasons, we might intentionally remember them in our private and communal prayers as we ask for reconciliation, forgiveness and love as the foundation of our family. Hiding when something hurts never helps, but preparing for the pain and giving yourself permission to feel is a good start to this emotional season.

Missing Loved Ones Tip #2: Ask for What you Need

I am a big believer in asking for what you need. Being secluded and aloof during times of grief is not a healthy option. Give a holiday heads-up to a couple of loved ones about the difficulties ahead. When they check on you, don\’t meet them with cliché or cookie cutter statements like “I\’m fine” if that\’s a lie. We are not meant to live life alone. We are social beings and are designed to need each other. Now that you have your “No-matter-what-check-on-me!” Team, use them. One of my close friends who lost her mother a few years ago plans a small get together during significant holidays. This keeps her busy, focuses her temporarily on giving to others, and surrounds her with warmth. Avoid isolation and advocate for your emotional health.

Missing Loved Ones Tip #3: Purpose to Enjoy

For some folks, the guilt of not feeling more “torn-up” about an empty chair can cause them to reject the enjoyment of this time of the year altogether. It is a good thing to feel some relief from grief and loss. Be on guard against avoiding laughter, embracing new people, and traditions out of loyalty to someone who is no longer here. Our loved ones would want us to live while we live.  Smile, laugh, and embrace a full range of emotions. We all express emotions in different ways. You don\’t need to look “broken” to prove your love to a missing loved one or send the message to other family member\’s about your loyalty. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, purpose to enjoy this season.

Those who are Not Missing from the Table

Does your family have difficult folks in it? People like that cousin who “plays too much”, the aunt who compares you to her “perfect daughters”, or the sister or brother whose issues absorb all the space in the room.  As you are reaching for your second plate on New Years Day, does your mom remind you about the gym membership she got you for Christmas, hint, hint?  For those who are single, get ready for those nagging questions about your personal life like “When are you getting married?” Nothing says not-so-happy holidays like inappropriate questions, relived childhood traumas, and making nice with “frenemy” family members. Here are some ways to prep for family member boot camp:

Difficult Loved Ones Tip #1: Bring a Buffer

That\’s right, I said it! I believe that friends are the family you pick. Many of us have a host of “play cousins” and aunts to exemplify this very thing. Bringing along one or two good friends may help keep some of the inappropriate themes at bay. And if not, at least you have a witness to your family\’s shenanigans. It\’s important that you bring someone who has your best interests at heart. Don\’t worry about feeling embarrassed by your family, because after all, everyone has some “characters” in their family tree.

Difficult Loved Ones Tip #2: Have an Escape Plan 

Your buffer can come in handy for this as well. They can serve as a ready excuse to leave and get some air. Also, scheduling multiple holiday drop-ins can give you just the right portion of holiday family joy. Remember to bring some Tubberware, your buffer, and a tank of gas because it\’s hard to shoot a moving target.

Difficult Loved Ones Tip #3: Expect and Give the Best

It\’s easy for us to make caricatures out of our loved ones, but the truth is people can and do change. Are you open to seeing and affirming that new and improved cousin, the one who normally drives you crazy? Expecting people to treat you well sends a signal that you are to be respected.  Also, it frees you to give your best. Being on guard and “getting them before they get you,” robs you of the opportunity to enjoy the moment you are blessed to live.  You also may be unwittingly creating a spot for yourself on someone else\’s “frenemy” family member list. How tragic would that be? Becoming like the person who disrespects or annoys you, is a lose-lose. Expect and give the best!


So far, we have talked about those who you wish were at the table. Let\’s switch gears and talk some about those who, frankly, you wish were at another table altogether!

I hope these ideas get you thinking this season. Moreover, I pray that you and your family experience a blessed and bountiful holiday season. Even with missing or wish-they-were-missing family members, we have much to be thankful for.

Please leave your reflections, comments and personal anecdotes for coping with people who are NOT at the table and people who ARE at the table!

Christina H. Edmondson, PhD, LLP is a psychologist, college instructor and speaker although much of her time and love are spent being a full-time wife and a mother of two. Please send family and relationship topics that you would like to hear about to or visit








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