Artful Aging

The Unexpected Guest this Season

We’re in the thick of it now. Lights sparkle in the stores and streets. My mailbox is stuffed with stacks of catalogs with gifts so numerous and images so glorious that I feel overwhelmed more than tempted. The music I hear while I am on hold for the customer service representative is relentlessly seasonal. Walking through any large store causes paroxysms of excess and despair.

I know I am not alone. This holiday season is filled with paradoxes. We want and need to feel hopeful and happy. We want to connect with loved ones and longtime friends and share stories, observe traditions, give generously. Yet, among the many ways this year challenges us is the recognition that for most people, loss is the uninvited and unwelcome guest at our table.

An unimaginable number of people taken by COVID-19 will be absent from family and friend celebrations. And our losses are not just about people no longer with us, but about the ways we lived before, the activities, and the customs we observed together.

We already learned something about what this means at Easter and Passover when we found ourselves on Zoom Seders and in virtual church services.

Warm weather and longer days allowed some of us to gather outside during the secular holidays of Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day. In masks and spaced apart, we could finally be with small groups of people we know and trust, but without the parades and displays and festivals that normally mark our summer months.

Now, Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday seasons loom and challenge us to forgo many of our family traditions. Even in normal years, those of us in the grief field start to gear up right after Holloween for the difficult season ahead. We copy articles and write lists like “Getting Through the Holidays” or “Coping with Holiday Expectations, Yours and Others.” And 2020 is anything but normal.

It’s important that we acknowledge what is different about this year, and make space to admit it, honor it, and feel our grief. I am not suggesting we spend the whole season in mourning. Rather, practice ways we can get comfortable with the discomfort we feel, be gentle with ourselves and each other, and welcome the mixed feelings that many of us feel. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If there has been a recent death, make sure to create space to talk about the person. Share favorite stories or activities that person loved.
  • If you can’t safely have your usual holiday gathering, plan a way to connect virtually to share some of the rituals or to open presents together.
  • Ask family and friends to find what is meaningful to them and share it, like photos, videos, and recordings that bring back valued memories.
  • Stay connected and admit when things feel isolating and sad. Ask others to check in with you during the harder times, connecting regularly to share how you are feeling.

This is the time for practicing interdependence, asking for, and offering help as the season progresses.

The only thing we can count on is change. It is the one constant and when we accept it, we can let go of having to be in control all the time. We all know how quickly our feelings can go from hopeful and happy to sad and fearful. We need to learn how to manage our thoughts and not believe everything we think. For most people our thoughts cause our feelings; learning how that works for ourselves can make it easier to ride the waves of grief and loss that threaten to wash over us this season.


Rebecca Crichton is executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and is a certified coach.

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