Coping with grief at Christmas
What are you doing for Christmas? That’s the question on everyone’s lips at this time of the year. It implies joy and happiness but for those of us who are mourning the death of a loved one, it’s a major source of anxiety and a reminder of our loss.
In this guide, we help you to understand its effects and we show you how to cope with grief at Christmas and during the holiday season.
The build up to Christmas
The build up is in many ways worse than the actual day. The festive atmosphere combined with the joy and excitement on people’s faces are likely to have an effect on you. Even the Christmas adverts can catch you off guard. You can’t avoid that but being aware of the possible triggers, makes you more prepared.
It’s also important to remember that we process and express grief individually. Sometimes it can come out in the form of anger and frustration, at other times - as loneliness and isolation. All of these emotions are normal. The only way of knowing how it’s going to affect you is by going through it rather that avoiding it in an attempt to protect yourself.
To celebrate or not to celebrate?
The type of your loss and individual circumstances are likely to determine the answer to that question. Some people spend the holidays with family and friends, while others prefer to go on holiday abroad. You may even find that staying at home and using this time of the year as an opportunity to reflect on your loss and its future impact on your life is a better use of your time.
There is no right or wrong answer. Celebrating or not, Christmas after the death of a loved one is a time for reflection and remembrance. Whether you are with family, friends or on your own, be prepared to go through the emotions of looking back and comparing past experiences to your current situation.
Different types of losses and Christmas
The anticipation of Christmas takes out so much of your energy that often, the day itself is quite anticlimactic and heavily influenced by the type of your loss.
Christmas after the loss of a child
The realisation that without your child, Christmas is not going to be the same any more is likely to bring a fresh wave of upsetting feelings and emotions. Not wanting to do anything under the circumstances is perfectly understandable.
If that’s the case, use this time of the year as an opportunity to remember the happy times and to treasure those precious memories. It’s OK to have a break from celebrations and traditions, particularly if this is your first Christmas after the death of your child. Do as much or as little as you feel so long as the other family members are on board and involved in the decision-making process. This is also an opportunity to introduce new traditions which honour the memory of your lost child.
For more information and advice, please refer to our guide about coping with the loss of a child.
Christmas after the loss of a spouse
Spending Christmas without the love of your life is a frightening prospect particularly if it’s your first one. Taking this into account and having a plan on how you like to spend the holidays helps to prepare you for the emotional effects of grief. It also provides you with an alternative to offers from family members and friends you are not in a position to accept.
Remember that the loss of your spouse would also affect other family members. Your children would be mourning the loss of their parent and your spouse’s parents would be mourning the loss of their child. Be mindful of their feelings and try to involve them in your plans for Christmas as much as you can. Consider the possibility they might even invite you to spend the holidays with them.
For more information and advice, please refer to our guide about coping with the loss of a spouse.
Christmas after the loss of a parent
Regardless of your age and the circumstances surrounding it, the shock of losing a parent is one of life’s harshest realities. It often comes with secondary losses and it raises questions about your own mortality. That makes Christmas without them a particularly challenging time of the year.
Remember that such a loss would have an effect on the whole family unit, including your children, surviving parent and siblings. Celebrating Christmas would never be the same but it could be an opportunity to honour their memory or start a new tradition to remember them in the future. Talking to friends who have gone through it can also helps.
For more information and advice, please refer to our guide about coping with the loss of a parent.
Stigmatised loss and Christmas
Although it shouldn’t be the case, there are certain types of losses which are still stigmatised by society. For example, the attitudes towards the death of a cancer patient can be very different to those towards a death after drugs overdose. Homicide, suicide and AIDS are some other types of losses which can be stigmatised.
Such attitudes can be quite damaging to people who are mourning the deaths of their loved ones. They can lead to discrimination, isolation or unrecognised grief.
Please don’t let the ignorance, lack of understanding and intolerance belittle your loss. Refer to the Helpful Organisations page on the website to find an organisation which can offer further help and support for your particular type of loss.
Please refer to the Grief & Bereavement Support section of the website for information and advice on coping with different types of grief and loss.
General advice on how to cope with grief at Christmas
However you decide to spend it, the day itself and the build-up to it are likely to be stressful and emotionally challenging. The following suggestions could be helpful in reducing the stress and coping with grief at Christmas.
Start the day right
A long soak in the bath can help to calm your nerves and mentally prepare for the day ahead. Take your time getting ready and select an outfit which makes you feel good. Fuel your body with a nutritious breakfast and remember to drink plenty of water throughout the day and evening - especially if there is alcohol involved.
Take regular breaks
The emotional strain is bound to take its toll on you. Make sure you take regular breaks throughout the day so that you give your body and mind the chance to recharge.
Go out for fresh air
If you have the time, go for a long walk. It helps with the release of endorphins - the hormones which make you feel good.
Put some of your energy into making a positive contribution to those who are in need. Helping others also helps to take your mind off your loss and gives you a feeling of satisfaction that you have done good.
Spend time with people who understand your loss
Don’t be afraid to snub invitations from people who make you feel uncomfortable. The same applies to getting involved in activities which can prove a challenge or take you out of your comfort zone. There is time and place for both but Christmas is not it. Surround yourself with people who are compassionate and make you feel good.
We offer grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.
NBS has a wide network of contacts within organisations providing support to bereaved people. They will explain your choices and help you decided what would be most helpful for you and how to make contact with them.
The service is available Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm and you can reach NBS by clicking on the chat box at the bottom of this page.
Contributed by Mark Welkin
Mark Welkin is the author of three grief books and a journalist who has worked for various media outlets in Europe and Asia. He lost his long-term partner in 2014 and a few months later, Mark turned to a grief counsellor for help. The results inspired him to share his experience and help other bereaved people to resume life after the loss of their loved ones.