Tips for Talking about Loved Ones over the Holidays

This holiday season, I invite you to get more comfortable. No, I don’t mean wear your favorite flannel pajamas to Thanksgiving dinner (though I do encourage that). I mean get comfortable having conversations about loved ones who have moved on from the physical world.

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Holidays gatherings are often a time of annual traditions and expectations. Many people seem to enjoy the predictability of who they will see and what will happen throughout the day.

Maybe every year, you expect to play cards before dinner or wish the TV wasn’t so loud. Maybe you count on eating canned beets or having the green bean casserole in the same glass Pyrex dish next to the yams.

But then one year, there’s no green bean casserole. Because there’s no Aunt Sally to bring it.

And suddenly, you find yourself needing to adapt. And having to do so in the company of others. Will mentioning the person who is no longer sitting at the table be a holiday downer? Or can talking freely about her or him connect you all in deeper ways?

Acknowledging what’s on the table

First, let’s be honest about the whole holiday scene. Some of us love holidays, some of us dread them. Some of us can’t wait to gather with those we call family, and some of us show up out of obligation. Some holidays are actually relaxing, while others are chaotic and filled with much more activity than we’re used to.

These factors will already affect the interaction of those in the room. Now add to the mix the death of a loved one you wish were there asking you to pass the potatoes.

I realize that may sound nonchalant, but it’s the unexpected moments that often bring up memories or highlight who’s missing even though everyone is doing their best to enjoy the day. The routine of the holiday changes when someone dies, and sometimes we try to act as if everything is the same. But it’s not.

Even if no one is talking about it, the elephant is still in the room, as the saying goes. Or perhaps it’s on the table, next to the yams.

Talking about loved ones isn’t off limits

I’ve noticed when I ask friends to tell me about their parents, partners, siblings, children or pets who have died, they are usually thrilled to engage rather than hesitant. They appreciate being invited to share because they are used to assuming no one wants to hear about what’s often perceived as “sad.” Over the years, I’ve wished I talked more – not less – about my loved ones. And I wish I heard more stories about them from others, too.

I encourage you not to assume talking about someone who died is off limits. We may think it’s taboo because we don’t want to be a catalyst for others’ potential sadness, especially at the holidays.

But talking about beloveds who have died doesn’t have to be a downer.

In fact, you can help others lift up the memories in ways that connect you as a family or group of friends, as well as connect you to the person who is no longer physically here. You can do this by being aware of the words you choose and the energy with which you speak.

I encourage you to take advantage of this time together. Know that you can set the energy and tone. You can be intentional and kind and real.

When my life-partner Kate died and I spent the holidays with friends, I spoke about her freely. Speaking about Kate over the years has given others a cue and permission that it is okay to talk about her. That it is valued, and even encouraged. You can create this level of comfort, too, if you choose.

Tips for creating ease and comfort

What are some tips for creating more ease and comfort when talking about your loved ones over the holidays, particularly at family gatherings? 

  1. Be mindful of the energy in the room. Before you initiate a conversation, pay attention to what’s happening around you. If the focus is on the football game, or Uncle Bob had too many beers, it may not be the ideal time to ask people to talk or listen to each other. The intention is to foster connection and honor your loved one and each other. The intention isn’t to process family dynamics or unresolved issues. Be aware of this and don’t force anything. Check with your inner guidance to see if the timing feels right. If the energy is lighthearted, don’t worry that talking about the person will make things too heavy. You can set the tone.
  1. Set the tone when you initiate the conversation. You get to choose your words and tone when you start the conversation. Even if you feel sad, you can be real in a way that helps create openness and connection rather than grief. Sometimes just breaking the ice can get you started. For example, “I’m thinking about Pat right now and feeling heavyhearted” can be followed by “what was that song he sang every year before we ate dessert?” Then you can connect around the memory. And while you can launch into “I miss mom so much, I wish she was here,” check out how different the energy is if you say “I loved the way mom used to fold the napkins. That was so creative!”
  1. Ask if people would like to hear one of your memories. Asking if those present are open to receiving what you’d like to share respects the space they are in, and also offers you feedback about your timing. You can ask “would you be up for hearing what popped in my mind about Aunt Sally?” If the vibe isn’t there to talk about them, that’s okay. It’s not personal. Maybe later you’ll end up having a one-on-one exchange with your cousin’s wife instead? Also, when you share a memory rather than process emotions, people may be more receptive and at ease. They may not want to feel overly emotional at a holiday gathering, and you can model sharing a memory that uplifts the energy in a comfortable way.
  1. Focus on presence rather than absence. Bringing someone’s presence into the room is valuable and memorable. And people will likely be pleasantly surprised to do this at a holiday gathering. Focus on memories you enjoy about your brother rather than what you miss about him or what you regret. “I remember when Scott took me fishing. I loved going on adventures with him” summons his presence. “I can’t believe I’ll never go fishing again with Scott” focuses on his absence. The difference is subtle and substantial. You can call forth how someone touched your life in tangible ways rather than emphasizing the gap you may feel because of their physical absence. Conscious language creates space that opens up hearts and conversations.
  1. Invite others to share their memories. Questions will likely help prompt other people to share. “Would anyone be willing to share a memory about grandma since we’re all together for the holiday?” may be too general, or may be all you need. It tends to be easier to recall a memory than a “story.” Or sometimes, a memory will then lead to someone telling a story. You can get things started by remembering that grandma got her hair done every week. No need to have a big story about her hair. Just a memory. Or questions like “what was one of your favorite times with dad?” or “what’s one thing you liked watching mom do?” may generate memories. Another approach is asking “if dad was here right now, what do you imagine he’d be doing / saying / wearing?”
  1. Offer a brief honoring when it’s time to shift gears. When it seems like the energy is shifting – whether it’s been five minutes or an hour – do a toast, say a prayer, or invite everyone to hang spoons from their noses the way Sam always used to do. Again, this calls forth someone’s presence in a sweet way so you can feel connected to them and to each other. Honoring someone in this way, whether solemn or playful, let’s others know that they, too, will be remembered once they leave this physical plane. They’ll know you won’t be shy about bringing them into conversation after they’ve transitioned someday. And this can be very comforting, even though it’s unspoken.
  1. Thank people for sharing or listening. Letting people know you appreciate what they share creates more trust for future connection. And offering your gratitude for how they listened to you reinforces the mutual exchange.

The above tips assume you are most likely with family, and that most people in the room know or are related to the loved one who died. If only one person in the room has experienced the death of someone close to them, especially if it’s their first holiday without them present, you may want to invite a conversation privately to create more emotional safety.

Asking them if they’d like to share memories or stories gives them room to decide. Use the same tips that help bring forth presence rather than simply asking “how are you doing?” or “how do you feel?” In my opinion, you provide a service when you let someone know you are happy to listen to them talk about someone they care about. They can decide if it feels comfortable for them or not.

An honoring & thank you for reading

Even though I haven’t spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with my Grandma Gene in years, this will be the first year I won’t be calling her on the phone over the holidays. In honor of her, here’s a short poem I wrote years ago. Thanks for witnessing her presence with me:

dinner, any occasion

grandma heaps
the mashed potatoes
on my flower-trimmed plate
without asking
until I say that’s enough
and then
she scoops one more
monstrous spoonful.

May you find comfortable ways to bring the presence of your loved ones into holiday gatherings this year. Speaking their names and sharing memories not only connects you to them, it can connect everyone in the room to each other. Initiate conversations that are mindful, heartfelt, playful and real. My guess is someone will be grateful you did.

(Please share this post with others who may find it useful over the coming month this holiday season. And please return here to post comments after the holiday. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Were these tips helpful? What other tips do you have to offer? Let’s learn from each other so we can find more ways to talk about our loved ones with each other.)

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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4 thoughts on “Tips for Talking about Loved Ones over the Holidays

  1. Dear Jen,
    Thanks for the great tips! While I generally feel at ease with talking about deceased loved ones, your tips added awareness of how to do so in a sensitive and thoughtful way. You know I can sometimes be a little inappropriate! 🙂 So, in the spirit of this post… I have such great memories of Christmas Eve parties at your house. Kate was always up for fun…as you are…and when I think of those times I feel a warm glow. The generosity, humor and love was substantial, tangible and nourishing on a deep level. Thank you my friends. I love you. Happy holidays.

    • Thanks, Bayla! Yes, hosting Christmas Eve parties all these years has been such a highlight, and yes, certainly Kate’s presence has still been strong at such fun gatherings ; ) Happy holidays to you as well.

  2. Thanks for the sharing. I just finished a grief class and it was very beneficial for more than just the loss of a loved one. The loss of freedom, dreams and hope can also figure into the mix.

    • Hi Judith,
      So glad that your class was beneficial in an expansive way. Such a great reminder that these issues apply to so many aspects of our lives, not just actual death. Love to you on your journey of both letting go and connecting to the greater truths of life.