Stay at Home Tips: Grief, Loss and New Traditions During the Holidays

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Grief, Loss and New Traditions During the Holidays

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life. As the seasons transition and the weather gets colder, it is more difficult to connect with people we care about. This holiday season will look different for Wisconsin families and many people may experience grief and loss. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, grief from missing out on seeing family members, or loss of normalcy and traditions, coping with these feelings can be challenging.

What is grief?

Grief is the normal and natural response to the loss of someone or something important to you. It is a natural part of life and can happen with any type of loss.

Everyone experiences and expresses grief differently. Some common reactions are:

  • Feeling empty and numb, as if you are in a state of shock
  • Physical responses such as nausea, trouble breathing, crying, confusion, lack of energy, dry mouth, or changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Anger—at a situation, a person or in general
  • Guilt about what you did or did not do
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and common activities
  • Difficulty focusing, working or making decisions
  • Questions about faith or spirituality; challenges to the meaning, value and purpose you find in life

How to cope with grief

  • Express your needs. It’s alright to let people know what is and isn’t helpful right now.
  • Help someone else. It may be helpful to volunteer or make a donation to a favorite cause in memory of what you have lost.
  • Give yourself time. There is no set time to be done grieving, but grief usually softens and changes over time. With time, the holidays will become easier to manage.
  • Be aware of your feelings. Allow yourself to mourn and feel sadness. Identify what you have lost.
  • Name your strengths and coping skills. Consider other times of loss you’ve gone through. What did you do to help get through it? What skills can you draw upon now?
  • Stay connected. Social distancing doesn’t have to prevent you from getting support. Use phone calls, text messages, video chats and social media to stay in touch with family and friends who are positive and supportive. Reach out to those in similar situations.
  • Limit your news intake. Spending too much time reading or listening to news about the COVID-19 pandemic can cause you to focus heavily on what you’ve lost, as well as increase anxiety.
  • Reflect on the journey. Your loss doesn’t define your whole experience. Consider some of your good memories and the big picture.

Where to reach out for support

Remember that every person — and every family — grieves differently. Reaching out to others for support can be helpful in the grieving process.

  • Counseling and support services can be a guide through some of the challenges of grieving. Grief support and counseling can be provided by professionals.
  • Grief support groups are often available and allow  participants to support one another.
  • More information on these types of resources are available from Resilient Wisconsin.

Help someone who is grieving

Use these strategies when helping someone who is grieving:

  • Listen: Be present and give the person your attention. Let them feel heard.
  • Accept all feelings: Give the person space to express their feelings, both bad and good.
  • Offer hope: Offer hope respectfully rather than to help them stop feeling their emotions.
  • Respect individual needs: Respect that we all experience grief and loss differently and have different needs when grieving.
  • Avoid clichés: Avoid “everything happens for a reason”, “God needed them”, and other standard phrases. While this might be comforting to you, it may not be to the person grieving.
  • Understand and  accept cultural/religious perspectives: Don’t push your faith on them if they don’t share it.
  • Be specific when offering help. You can ask: What day can I drop off dinner? Would it be helpful to have company right now? Do you have any appointments coming up that I can drive you to?
  • Help the person ease into activities. Initially they may decline, but keep trying to include them in activities.
  • Check in as time goes by. Oftentimes loved ones are busy with a number of tasks related to someone’s passing and they don’t grieve right away. Consider checking in with them even after time has passed.

Create New Holiday Traditions

Feelings of grief and loss can be particularly strong during the holidays. Our losses and the COVID-19 pandemic may prevent us from practicing  long-held traditions. We can give ourselves permission to grieve our losses while also we can also creating something new. New holiday traditions can assist in our healing and increase mental well-being.

Here are a few ways you can still honor traditions during this time:

  • Instead of gathering around a table, share the same meal while connecting virtually.
  • Unwrap gifts over the phone or computer.
  • Make gift bags of goodies for people to pick up from your doorstep or send through mail.
  • Have an “upside down” or “opposite” holiday — be creative!
  • Watch a special movie together over video chat.
  • Create an audio or visual journal of friends and family singing favorite songs or sharing holiday memories.
  • Interview family members over the phone, or virtually, to capture family stories, memories, or traditions on paper or video. Check out this question list by StoryCorp for ideas.
  • Enjoy a virtual holiday trivia game night.
  • Have a coloring contest where everyone colors a holiday picture and votes on their favorite.

If you decide to leave your home, please stay at least 6 feet apart and wear a mask.  All in-person activities carry a risk.  

Resources for help

The following helplines are free, confidential, and available 24/7 

United Way 211 – Dial 211 to connect to social services and local supports

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) – a treatment, referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders

Veteran’s Crisis Line 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat – text: 8388255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

Learn more about safety during holiday celebrations 

Use the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Decision Tool for Individuals and Families 

Help youth deal with change and loss

Adapted from:
What is Grief. (2020) National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from
Grief Support. (2020) National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Retrieved September 21, 2020 from
Supporting Someone Who is Grieving. (n.d.) National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Retrieved September 21, 2020 from

Know the basics about COVID-19

FOR RELIABLE INFORMATION YOU CAN TRUST, about staying safe and what to do if you have COVID-19 symptoms, go to

What are the symptoms? Not everyone with COVID-19 has all of these symptoms. For many, symptoms are mild, with no fever. It is important to know that you can still spread (transmit) the virus to others even if you have mild or no symptoms. Two to 14 days after exposure, people may experience:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

What should I do if I develop symptoms?

If you become ill, stay home and call your doctor if you feel you need medical care or advice. If you are having an emergency, call 911. 

  • Each day, write down your symptoms so you can share accurate information with your doctor. 
  • Make sure a family member or friend knows that you are unwell and ask them to check on you by phone or video chat every day. Even mild illnesses can quickly take a turn for the worse.
  • Practice good self-care. Get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.

How can I lower my risk of getting COVID-19?

  • Stay home as much as possible to protect yourself and others.
  • When possible, shop for two weeks of groceries at a time to expose yourself less often.
  • Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds especially after using the bathroom, before eating, and after touching door handles, keypads, pens, and other frequently used surfaces.


  • Call the National Disaster Distress Helpline to speak to a trained crisis counselor
    • 800-985-5990
    • 800-846-8517 (TTY)
    • Or text:  TalkWithUs to 66746
  • Access information and resources to help you meet your immediate needs
    • Call 2-1-1
    • Contact your local Aging and Disability Resource Center

See more UW-Madison Division of Extension Stay at Home Tips 


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