Holiday lights, carols and traditional foods are just the things to create a festive mood this month.
But for the adult child who recently lost a parent, a longtime member of a couple whose spouse has died, or the family facing an empty chair at their traditional gathering, there may not be much fa-la-la-la-la in late December.
The psychological stress of the holidays, often a time of raised expectations, is especially painful for a family in mourning, said Robert Rubinstein, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose research has focused on loss and grief for older adults.
"It's a very difficult time," he said. "That's not to say people can't have great holidays."
In his studies of families after the loss of an elderly parent, Rubinstein noted how younger generations, especially middle-aged daughters, worry about their widowed parent's grief more than their own.
He has seen how resilient people are as they share memories and Mom's favorite recipe and remember the people they miss.
"People do tend to take care of each other," he said.
A parent's death marks a time of transition, he said, as questions arise about whether a family will remain united and roles will evolve for the succeeding generation.
"It really means a change in the generations," Rubinstein said.
Whether a loved one died a year ago or a decade ago, pain can come roaring back and it's not unusual, said Fred Schneider, a bereavement coordinator at Professional Healthcare Resources.
During the holidays, whether it's a celebration of Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, it's important to do whatever helps, said Schneider, who recently led a workshop at the Charlestown retirement community on grief and the holidays.
Although there are no rules for grieving, taking some of the following suggested steps may help during the next month:
• Make a plan.
It's bound to be a different day. Talk with friends and relatives about what traditions to continue and what to do new. Continue the family dinner Mom loved or opt for a trip. Go to your usual church or try a different service.
• Make time to grieve.
Visit the cemetery, light a candle or even leave an empty chair at the table if that is comforting.
"The goal is not to forget that person, but to redefine our relationships," Schneider said. "Now we carry them in our hearts."
Tears are OK, Schneider said. "If you've never loved, you never have to cry," he said. "If you do, then I guarantee you'll have to cry."
Do not hesitate if you want to speak about the deceased, Rubinstein said.
"A public expression of grief and feelings about it is a good thing," he said.