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Observing the Holidays After Losing a Loved One with Dementia

Coping with An Empty Place at the Table


Updated December 07, 2012

Perhaps you've recently lost a loved one due to Alzheimer's disease, another type of dementia, or some other illness or accident. Or, maybe it's been years, but the emotions may still be strong, and family get-togethers tend to bring those feelings out.

As the holidays approach, some people dread the celebrations and festivities because of their grief and loss. Others just aren't sure how to handle the absence of a loved one who has always been a part of the festivities.

Whether your loved one passed away recently or years ago, the absence of family members is often felt poignantly at the holidays. You don't need to deny those feelings and your losses, but you might find that you can grieve and yet still enjoy those celebrations.

6 Tips to Cope with an Empty Place at the Table

  • Accept that some traditions may change.

    It's normal to want to hold onto the comfortable, known way of celebrating the holidays, but it might not be fully possible. If one of those traditions required the active role of the loved one who you've lost, talk with your other family members before a holiday gathering about those changes so that you can agree on how to proceed. Being proactive on discussing your expectations can prevent misunderstandings and disappointment.

  • Acknowledge that it's still okay to celebrate.

    You're not dishonoring your loved one, or diminishing his loss, by feeling joyful, so let go of any guilt. In fact, try thinking of the holidays as an opportunity to remember them well and to appreciate the chance to spend time with other family members.

  • Honor that person by reminiscing about their gifts and talents, work habits, or quirks.

    For example, if it was your father who passes away, there might be a few minutes where you and your siblings could share a memory with each other. It could be a meaningful interaction you had with him, or simply a humorous memory that brings a laugh.

  • Make a recipe that was her specialty for the family dinner.

    I know one family who always makes a certain kind of buttery rolls for their Christmas dinners. It's their great aunt's recipe and it now is being passed down to the next generation in her memory.

  • Give a gift in his memory to a favorite charity or organization.

    You can also choose to remember your family member by making a donation in his name to a favorite charity or research organization.

  • Talk with someone about the difficulty.

    Finally, if you find yourself unable to even momentarily let go of your feelings of grief, consider talking with a professional counselor. There's no right or wrong time prescribed for grieving, and you don't need to "just get over it"; however, grief eventually should lessen as time moves on. A counselor can help you move through the stages of grief, monitor you for signs of depression, and provide education and support as you cope with your loss.


Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. In Brief: Handling holidays and difficult times. Accessed November 30, 2012. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/December/handling-holidays-and-difficult-times

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