Grieving is painful and difficult no matter what the time of year. However, as the holidays approach, it can become even more difficult. The first Christmas after a loved one dies is always hard.
There is something about the nostalgia and traditions of Christmas that can trigger the most severe feelings of grief, sometimes even years after the death. The grief isn’t always easy to deal with, so you might find that you want to do things differently, or even to ‘cancel’ your celebration.
Surround yourself with understanding friends and family, or if you prefer, spend the day alone. Remember – there is no one ‘right way’ to grieve.
Do not feel guilty if you have moments of joy or laughter
Sometimes the hardest parts about grieving are the unexpected jolts of guilt as you find yourself enjoying a moment or having a genuine laugh. Emotions are complex and layered, and sometimes people find that comedy can ease their pain. Watching a child open a gift, biting into a mince pie, or watching It’s a Wonderful Life can all trigger happiness, and that is normal and ok. It doesn’t mean that you miss your loved one any less.
Don’t allow the sneaky tendrils of guilt to make you feel ashamed about any moments of Christmas joy that you may have. On the other hand, don’t feel guilty if this year, you simply have no holiday spirit at all.
Implement new traditions
As the first Christmas season after your loved one has passed approaches, you might want to think about implementing new traditions. Making a special effort to remember the person can be soothing at this time of year, and can be a meaningful moment in your celebration.
Some people choose to set aside a few minutes for each person to speak about the person who has passed. Others light a candle and set it at the table, in the centre, or at a set place. As a family, you may want to visit their grave, or a place that was special to them. If you have children, remember to involve them.
Consider having Memorial Christmas Decorations made to include the person who has passed in your annual celebrations. These decorations include some of the ashes of your loved ones, giving them special significance and meaning.
Handling Christmas with children after someone has passed
Handling Christmas with children after someone they love has passed can be a tricky and complex experience. Children grieve in very different ways than adults, and they might seem to be enjoying the season as normal, even when they are in pain inside.
The most important thing that you can do is open the lines of communication, and let them know that they can share anything they are feeling with you. Let them know that they do not have to celebrate if they do not want to, and ask them if there are any new traditions they would like to start in order to remember the person who has passed.
You do not have to celebrate Christmas
Some grieving people find that the idea of celebrating Christmas feels distasteful or too painful. However, others wish to have as normal a Christmas as possible, complete all of the foods and traditions that they enjoyed with their loved one. Still others plan a simple celebration, a ‘pared down’ version of their usual fete.
It is important to note that all of these options (or something completely different) are valid. If you choose not to celebrate Christmas this year, that might be the best choice for your own mental health and grieving process.
Some people find that travelling during the season can help, as they are not surrounded by memories in their home.
Remember that everyone in a family mourns differently
We all have different ways of grieving, and so it makes sense that we handle Christmas in different ways. As the first Christmas after a death comes closer, conflict can arise within families, as different people will have different expectations about what should occur.
As mentioned above, some people will want to ‘skip’ Christmas completely, as they cannot imagine celebrating at this sad time. However, others will wish to have a joyful celebration, complete with all of the traditions that make a family’s Christmas special. This can cause a rift in the family, as everyone has different expectations. Remember that they are also feeling pain, and try to be sensitive to their needs, while asking them to be sensitive for yours. Try to speak openly about your feelings.
It is ok to protect your own wellbeing above all else. You might choose not to attend a family gathering this year, and that is perfectly acceptable. Let them know that you need this time to grieve privately, and you will likely join them next year.
Consider scheduling a family get-together on Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve instead, or plan a ‘commemoration’ rather than a celebration.
Remember to take care of yourself
Self-care is one of the most commonly cited concepts around grief, but it can be easier said than done around Christmas time. The holiday season means that your schedule is most likely disrupted, and taking care of your physical and emotional needs can fall by the wayside.
Christmas can mean drinking more alcohol than usual, but using alcohol to escape your loss only provides relief in the very short term. In reality, it can make your mental and physical health much worse. The same can be said for decadent treats. Remember that it is ok to indulge, but ‘drowning your sorrows’ in food or alcohol can have negative consequences.
Many grieving people find that they are exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Take some long baths, enjoy a warming hot spiced apple juice, and take as many guilt-free afternoon naps as you wish. If you have young children to look after, see if some of your friends and family can pitch in to help.
Most importantly – be kind to yourself. Don’t ruminate on all of the things you’re not doing this year. It’s ok that the house is a bit untidy, and it will be fine if the meal is more simple than usual.
Grief at Christmas doesn’t only affect the recently bereaved
Grief is not just something that the recently bereaved experience. Christmas and other holidays and anniversaries can trigger memories of long ago, reminding you of a loved one who passed in the past. It’s quite ironic that the ‘happiest time of year’ can reopen old wounds and plunge you back into the depths of grief. It can be hard to see the smiling faces of children and happy families when you are feeling the pain and ache of loss.
Remember – there is nothing unusual about feeling sadness and pain over the death of a loved one, even if they passed away decades ago. You are not alone.
Some people find comfort in ritual and religion, and attend their local church for prayer. Your church or the local council might host grief support groups specifically around Christmas, as many other people are grieving at this time of year. Speaking with others in a similar situation can help to alleviate your pain.
How to say Merry Christmas to someone who is grieving
It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving, no matter what the time of year. It is especially difficult at Christmas time.
If your are speaking to someone who has had a very recent loss, it can see insensitive to wish them ‘happy holidays’ or a ‘Merry Christmas.’ Instead, try some of the following statements.
“I am thinking of you this Christmas. How are you doing?’
“I’m keeping you in my thoughts on this second holiday season after your loved one (say their name) passed.”
“Would you be interested in joining us for Christmas? We understand if you would prefer to be alone.”
“May I come visit you during the holiday season?”
“What can I do to support you during this Christmas period?”
Remember – it is always better to say something than to say nothing. Even if your sentiment comes out a bit awkward, it is always better than trying to avoid the topic.
It’s ok to need support – please reach out
Most importantly, remember to reach out if you are suffering. Speak with friends and family, and lean on your support system. If you are feeling very down, or experiencing thoughts of self-harm, please get in touch with Samaritans on freephone 116 123. They’re there for you 24 hours per day, and are there to listen and help.
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