Holiday Traditions After A Loss


This year was pretty tough for me. I lost my beloved dog Finn. Finn was my partner in life and in work, as he was a therapy dog who provided love, support and relief to many cancer patients and their families over the years.

As the holidays grew closer, I started to think more about Finn’s place in my holiday traditions. I was filled with anxiety about unpacking “his” ornaments. Should I or even could I put them on our tree? What about his stocking? Should I hang it with the others? What about all of his silly holiday costumes he used to wear while doing therapy visits? Could I use them with Linus, my other therapy dog? Did I want to?

My emotions were all over the place. Tears, joy, worry, guilt, pain, hope, and most of all love.

The day came to put up the Christmas tree. As I unpacked the ornaments, I came across several of Finn’s. I chose a few to hang on the tree and I recollected fond memories, happier times and the unconditional love we had for each other. I thought, isn’t this part of what the holidays are all about?

There is no right or wrong way to figure out holiday traditions after losing a loved one. I want to encourage you to think about three things

  • Symbols of remembrance: These are different for everyone. They can be a song, a smell, a photo, a place. They may come up unexpectedly or we may purposefully seek them out to invoke remembrance in our bereavement process. Explore, discover, and learn what things store memories for you and how you want to or don’t want to incorporate them into this year’s holiday activities.
  • Find meaning: After a loss, we struggle to make sense of the loss and find meaning of that loss in our lives. Traditions can help us to find meaning, purpose and a redefined sense of our selves without the thing we have lost-regardless of what that thing was. It could have been a person, a pet, a home, a job, your hair, your health. This is important in our ability to grieve and adapt to life after a loss.
  • Permission: Give yourself permission NOT to do things you are used to doing and to make new traditions. It’s okay to say, “no, not this year.”

I miss Finn. And I’m so happy that I have things that make me laugh and smile about him and his part of my life. But I’m also glad I didn’t hang his stocking on the mantle. Instead, I hung a new one for my new pup, Huckleberry Finn. I’m incorporating Huck into our memories, while still honoring Finn. Finding this balance has been important for me in navigating holiday traditions this year. What works for you?