Emergency Tool Kit For Grieving Over The Holidays

Three weeks ago today, I lost my sister (and best friend) to metastatic breast cancer. A week after her funeral, my dad passed away from dementia. I arrived home from my father’s funeral just two days ago. Yesterday was my birthday. Thanksgiving is this week. And Christmas is right around the corner.

To put it mildly, it’s been a tough month.

I am currently sitting in bed with swollen red eyes, because it has been another bad day. But then while sitting under my comforter, hiding from the world, the thought occurred to me that there are a lot of you out there who have also lost love ones. And this time of year makes those losses all the more powerful and sad.

We’re dreading the holidays. And not just those experiencing their first holiday apart from a loved one, but those who are several years into the grieving process. Because grieving takes time.

So I put together an emergency tool kit for those of us who feel unprepared for the holiday season.

The idea isn’t to distract ourselves from the grief or to set it on the back burner. The idea is to embrace our grief whenever we feel it—to acknowledge the pain in a healthy way, and then get back to the festivities with our loved ones, family, and friends.

Here are some effective ways to grieve over the holidays.

  1. Creative Grieving

Get ready to cry, because creative grieving is so stupid and magical that it actually works. In the last 3 weeks I’ve done three creative projects.

For the first creative grieving project, I went through four months of phone calls. I wanted to see how many there were between us. There were a lot. Then I tallied up who called who more, and wrote a poem about it.


For the second creative grieving project, I restored an old photo of my dad, and printed up copies at Walgreens. I got four 8 x 10s for $8.96. I know. Pretty amazing. I framed the photos and presented them to my aunts and stepmom just before his funeral. It meant a lot to them and it felt good to reach out in this way. And let’s be clear, I’m no “photo restorer”. I simply used Pic Stitch; the mobile app. No lie. Turned out awesome.





He was a handsome devil, wasn’t he?

The third creative grieving project wound up being my favorite. As I said, my birthday was yesterday, and I was SAD. Since my sister Trina is older than me, this was the first birthday I’ve ever spent without her.


…I had several saved voicemails from my sister, one of which was from a previous birthday. So I decided to use that voicemail to make a little tribute video.

I gathered a few incidentals (a balloon, markers, paper, a bag of Doritos, and a picture of my sister), filmed the video with my iPhone, and edited it with iMovie on my laptop. Not only was I completely occupied for three hours, but I ended up making something that was very meaningful to me. It was a cathartic little project, and I keep coming back to it. Hearing her voice is priceless. Take a look. It’s pretty darn cute.

Moving right along. Next up?

  1. Put Together a Music Playlist

This one is very simple. Just select several songs and place them on a playlist in iTunes. I also keep this playlist on my iPhone so I can use it for long walks or needed drives in my car. Occasionally, I’ll add or delete a song. The idea is to find songs that celebrate that special person—songs that say, “I’m so sad I want to die”, or that create inner peace, or bring back a special memory of your loved one.

I added a few instrumentals, which have become some of my favorite songs on the playlist because there aren’t lyrics telling me how to feel. They simply create a soundtrack for my memories.

My playlist is just 11 songs. Below are the ones currently on that list.

“Conscience” and “Water Fountain” by: David Foster
“Every Time We Say Goodbye” by: Annie Lennox
“Bookends” and “Cloudy” by: Lincoln Briney
“Firewood” by: Regina Spektor
“Leather and Lace” by: Stevie Nicks & Don Henley (In the 80’s my sister and I used to sing this song in the car when we’d head off to pick up an 8-pack of Pepsi at the local drive-thru.)
“Gabriel’s Oboe” by: Yo-Yo Ma & Ennio Morricone
“Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” by: The cast of Glee
“Forrest Gump Suite” by: Alan Silvestri

And my latest addition that has brought so much peace to me…

“In The Meantime” by Jess Ray (seriously…check this one out HERE. It’s gorgeous.)

*All of these songs are available on iTunes.

Number three in the tool kit might be the most important, and that is…

  1. Make a Friends List

Do not venture out into the holidays without your people. In the words of a good friend, “If you are going up in your head, take someone with you. That’s a scary place to go alone.” I’m not sure it’s possible to not go up in our heads when we’ve lost a loved one, SO…

Take someone with you.

I have about 5 people on retainer for my Thanksgiving trip. They’ve all been informed to answer the phone if and when I call. I don’t expect I’ll need an hour of their time. Sometimes just 5 or 10 minutes is enough. I tell them how ridiculous all of this dying business is. They listen. And I find a sense of peace and normalcy in my life. Or if I don’t find a sense of peace and normalcy, I go on another walk with my playlist. Or I get out the tape and scissors.

But here’s the thing—make sure your Friends List contains friends who really KNOW you, who are SAFE and COMPASSIONATE.

  1. Share Your Memories

When a memory pops in my head, I write it down. Often, I share those memories with friends during a coffee meeting or on a phone call. Also, if I find an old picture of my loved one, it’s great to share it on social media. This allows your friends to rally around you in support. Because sometimes “being seen” is being cared for. Don’t underestimate the power of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter…or the ability of others to love you through social media.

  1. Miscellaneous Items (A little practical advice)

Do not rush grief. Grieving takes time. Feel your feelings and never judge whether they are right or wrong. I love the photo below. Says it all. Grieving is messy, isn’t it? But we’ll find our way.


Keeping a journal during your time of grief. Write out your feelings, good or bad. Put them on the page.

Absolutely DO NOT start a new diet or workout routine. Do not get a divorce, quit your job, or get plastic surgery. If you are going to be impulsive, buy leather pants. Just be sure to return them when you’ve come back to your senses.

That is all, my friends! Here’s to hoping all of our holidays are filled with light, goodness, love, amazing comfort food, and the kind of grief that will eventually heal our hearts.

Grace, peace, hope, and so much love,


*In the comments section below, please tell other readers what has worked for you while grieving.

Matt Bays is the author of: FINDING GOD IN THE RUINS. (Click book title to order.) Or WATCH THE BOOK TRAILER.

Book Cover (3D)

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