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Sending Holiday Cards After A Death: the great debate

by Litsa Williams


After losing a loved one there are approximately a million holiday grief challenges that arise.  From bursting into tears in the store when you see a gift they would love to that moment when you realize no one else knows how to carve the turkey, the holidays can feel like a minefield of added grief woes.  Tucked in there somewhere may be the issue of if and how to send holiday cards.  Every year around this time we start to get emails and comments from people struggling with this decision, some who have been hearing opinions from others about what you are “supposed” to do.  There is no right or wrong and there are no easy answers (like so much in grief!), but we’ll tackle some considerations here and then we would love to hear from you in the comments.  How have you handled holiday cards after a death?

To Send or Not to Send

This is the most common and basic question, though the reasons we hear it often vary.  The broad categories are something like this:

  1. I have no energy or motivation to send cards, but I feel like I should because I will receive them and others will be hurt if I don’t.
  2. I want to send cards, but I heard it is customary not to.
  3. I don’t want to send cards because I don’t want to fake being happy.
  4. I want to send cards but my family members don’t (or vice versa).

There is no right answer because you ultimately have to decide what works for you, but here are some things to consider:

  1. The people you would send cards to likely know about your loss.  Chances are they will be understanding if you don’t muster the strength for cards this year.
  2. Internet sources of this “tradition” of not sending cards the year after a loss are hard to come by.  So far as I can tell, it seems to be either an Irish or an old Catholic custom.  Not only is it customary not to send cards the first year after a death, but also not to receive them.  If anyone knows more about this tradition, please leave a comment.  But in general it doesn’t seem to be well-known (at least not here on the interwebs) so I wouldn’t let it stop you!
  3. Sending a card doesn’t mean faking a happy holiday season.  You can find a subdued card with a subtle note or message that feels appropriate for the bitter-sweet feelings you may be having this holiday season. (WYG has two options over in our store.  You can check them out here).
  4. Well, we can’t facilitate a family mediation for you and your family if you disagree, but we can encourage you to sit down and talk out the concerns and wants on either side.  It may be more easily resolved than you think.  You may also be able to find a compromise (for example, yes to sending cards but no to sending a family photo card.

To Acknowledge or Not to Acknowledge

If you decide to send cards the next question is whether you want to acknowledge the loss that occurred during the year.  Again, there is no right or wrong answer, but there are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Most people receiving a holiday card probably know about the loss.  There may be exceptions, but in general sharing this is not going to be new information.
  2. If people who are getting a card don’t know, don’t assume they don’t want to know.  This was a significant life event and, whether they knew or didn’t know the person, if you’re sending them a card there is a good chance they would want to know this is something you are coping with.
  3. It’s okay to be real. Yeah, I know, joy and cheer and merry and happy, the holiday season is filled with words that feel like they have no room for grief.  But life is complicated, it isn’t all joy and cheer, and it is okay to acknowledge that.  It is also okay to say, yes there will be many bittersweet moments.
  4. It’s okay to fake it.  I know, that sounds weird to say.  But sometimes in grief you just want to feel normal again.  Though we rarely advocate stuffing or avoiding emotions, a holiday card is a simple tradition that allows you to take a break if you need one.  You can send a card with a standard holiday greeting and call it a day, just to feel a little bit normal and to put something nice out into the world.

How To Acknowledge

If you decide to go this route, the appropriate way to acknowledge can be hard to gauge.  Some families chose to use a family photo that includes their loved one.  Others choose to write a sentence or two acknowledging the loss.  A third option comes from a WYG reader, who included her deceased child’s name when signing the card but put the name in a heart. Some include a note or letter going into more depth about how everyone is coping, ways of continuing bonds, etc.  If you have other ideas on how to acknowledge this, please leave a comment to let us know!

If You Don’t Send Cards

If you decide against cards, then regret that decision, don’t worry! You can send a text or email on the holiday to those who matter most.  You can also decide to send a New Year’s card to buy yourself a little more time if you find yourself regretting the decision.

If you are struggling with the decision, or if you have tips to share, please leave a comment to keep the conversation going!  And don’t forget to check out the WYG holiday cards that support our site in our shop.


To learn more about What's Your Grief, check out more articles or connect with them: 
Visit their website: www.whatsyourgrief.com