Top 8 Tips for Surviving Grief at Christmas
Posted on 2nd December 2020 at 13:25
Whether it’s your first Christmas without a certain person or your fifth, whether you’ve experienced a significant loss in the past year or are sad to be spending the holidays alone – so many of us struggle at this time of year because our memories turn painful, certain songs or decorations trigger emotional reactions or we’re heartbroken that our relationships are not the way we wish they could be.
Many of us find it difficult to enjoy the Christmas and New Year. What makes things all the more challenging is that we're expected to be in good spirits all of the time and that we see everyone else enjoying their Christmas holidays and thinking we should be able to do the same.
Tip 1: You're allowed to cry
Did you know that crying actually releases oxytocin and endorphins in the body? It’s a form of natural pain relief that is a normal part of the human experience. If you've suffered a loss this year or Christmas and New Year remind you of a loss in the past, it's the most normal and natural thing in the world to cry about it.
You may need to let family members know that you may cry at certain points during the celebration and that it's okay if they need to do the same. If you’re spending time with extended family make sure that you explain that you might need to escape to a spare room every now and again without worrying about being interrogated about where you’ve been. In addition, it might be a good idea to have an escape route at Christmas parties and family gatherings. Be sure you have a way to leave early, for example by avoiding alcohol in case you need to drive home or by checking the times that buses or trains will be running on the bank holidays in advance.
Tip 2: Have a plan
Chances are that the days leading up to Christmas are just as difficult as the actual day, so it helps if you have a plan as soon as possible.
Putting your head down and hoping to wake up in mid January sadly isn’t going to work. Rather than trying to ignore your fears, sit down with your family and discuss what will happen. They have probably been thinking about the holiday too and will find it a relief to have you initiate the conversation.
You may decide that you wish to keep all of your usual traditions or you may decide that you will be doing less than in previous years. It may be difficult to agree on everything and compromises will need to be made. But having this discussion will make it easier for you to decide which traditions to keep and which ones to skip this year – and everyone will know what to expect. If there is a specific tradition that some definitely want to keep and others can't imagine doing, make arrangements for that to work. For example if some would not like to sing carols because it's too upsetting, perhaps this is scheduled for a time where one group can sing at home and the other group can see a film or take a walk together outside. It may sound like hard work, but it is better to take action now than waiting for the big day to arrive and keeping your fingers crossed that things will go well.
If you have children include them in making the plans. Be honest when talking to them – express how sad you are that Mum/Dad/Grandma/Uncle won’t be there and that it’s going to be very different this year. Ask them what they would like to do to acknowledge how much they miss them and also what they want to keep or change about your family traditions. If there is something that is very special to you that you want to do or not do, explain this too. Your feelings are equally important as theirs.
It is essential that you are honest with them. We teach our children to always tell the truth so when we attempt to cover up our feelings and put on a brave face our body language gives us away and they get confused.
Even small children can sense when something is being kept from them. However, you need to be cautious. Being honest doesn’t mean that you should turn your children into your carer or surrogate spouse. So even though you can be honest, you need to gently discourage them from taking care of you. Yes, it’s a little challenging to do both, but you’ll be able to know how to do that.
With a well-designed plan, your family may even be able to look forward to certain parts of the holiday and know that they will not be expected to participate in the aspects that make them too uncomfortable. Instead of waiting for the special day with dread, you can take comfort in knowing what to expect and even enjoy.
Tip 3: Begin a new tradition
If you have a conversation with your family and make a plan for Christmas, consider adding a new tradition or two. This can be something to look forward to, or something that is focussed around the loved one you are missing. You may, for example, play their favourite board game, tell their favourite stories, light a special candle and listen to a particular song, go for a long walk together, watch a certain film, the sky is the limit. You may also choose an activity that isn’t at all related to the holiday.
The purpose of starting a new tradition is not to distract ourselves from our loss, but rather to find a way to acknowledge our feelings in a way that feels better than doing nothing at all - or worse, pretending nothing has happened (when it of course has). Doing things differently this year does not mean you’ve forgotten your loved one. However when you’ve been through a major change, things will be different anyway – it's better to have a plan and deliberately choose to celebrate differently rather than hoping it all just goes away.
Tip 4: You can spend the holidays any way you like
Our previous tips included having a plan for Christmas and possibly including a new tradition this year. Unfortunately, making plans without the loved ones we're missing often means there is some guilt involved. We either feel guilty for celebrating in the first place, or we feel guilt around the fact that we're not able to celebrate the way our family and friends may want us to - and sometimes all of the above.
Grief is unique to every individual and every relationship. If you’ve given some thought to the way you would like to celebrate this year – whether it’s with the bare minimum of decorations and presents, new traditions or with the same traditions as every year, there’s no need to feel guilt about your choices.
Sometimes we expect grief to look or feel a certain way. We anticipate that we will spend the day in darkness and feel depressed. When the day arrives, we may have the energy to listen to happy music, decorate, laugh and exchange presents instead. We may also feel different things all day long, as grief can change from minute to minute!
You may decide to cancel all of your obligations and “skip” Christmas and New Year's this year. You have the right to follow your heart and do what feels right to you. If you're feeling guilty, it may help you to share those feelings with someone close who will not try to judge or criticize.
Sometimes we may just need to acknowledge the fact that the guilt is there, for example "I'm feeling bad that we're not doing presents this year. But this is the best I can do for now. Maybe next year we can try again with presents." Or "I feel guilty about having a happy Christmas when John isn't here to celebrate with us. I'm going to remember him by lighting this candle and speaking about him with the others."
There's no "right" way to celebrate when you're grieving. We can only do our best and take the time to acknowledge painful feelings if and when they should arise.
Tip 5: Reach out for support
This may or may not be your first Christmas without your mom/dad/brother/daughter, but if you are struggling with the pain, it may very well be the right time to reach out for help. Perhaps you’ve been wanting to speak to someone for some time now and have been putting it off. Instead of waiting, you CAN start to work on the recovery process. It may be just the boost you need to get through another year of holidays, and it will let you start the new year off on the right foot. When memories of Christmases past turn painful, it is a sign that there are still things that are incomplete with the relationship that has ended. Seeking out support may be the best Christmas present you could possibly give yourself.
Remember that time does not, contrary to what people may say, heal all wounds. Don’t let another year pass you by in the hopes it will be different or better next year. There are many support services available, including the evidence-based Grief Recovery Method. Isolation and pain does not have to continue year after year - please reach out to us, find a Specialist online or in your area, order a copy of the Grief Recovery Handbook or see which services are available near you. You do not need to wait or suffer alone.
Tip 6: There are many reasons for grief
Do you grieve around Christmas or New Year's even though you haven't experienced the death of someone close?
Grief is the normal and natural response to a loss of any kind. The Christmas period without our loved ones can be heartbreaking because certain traditions, scents, music and objects remind us of their death. Their absence is painfully obvious. However special occasions can also be very difficult for people who do not have a family to celebrate with for other reasons.
If they have experienced the recent breakdown of a relationship through divorce or separation, for example, the absence of their former partner, children and extended family may be incredibly painful.
Then there are those whose children, siblings, parents or other relatives no longer communicate with the family, either with or without an explanation. They too will be likely to experience more grief at the end of the year.
Many have difficulties enjoying this time of year because they long for a family of their own. Perhaps they have never been in a serious relationship or have experienced a breakup. Or they had expected to have children by this time in their lives and are painfully reminded of this when they see images of happy families opening presents around the Christmas tree.
Sadness at the Christmas is unfortunately something that many of us experience. In acknowledging this fact, you can begin to change the way you spend the special day. Perhaps you decide to volunteer and spend the occasion caring for others. You may get an invitation to spend Christmas with friends. Sharing your feelings with someone you trust is a good place to start. We would also recommend avoiding social media, as this increases feelings of isolation.
If you are grieving it’s important that you seek help regarding your losses so that they are not a continuous source of pain. You may not choose to do it at Christmas time, but it may be a good thing to do in the new year.
Tip 7: Avoid too much time alone
We tend to isolate ourselves when we're grieving because we quickly learn that many people aren’t “safe” to talk to. They try to fix us or make inane remarks that might be intellectually true but are emotionally useless. Nevertheless, isolation impedes recovery. We need others around us to share our thoughts and feelings with and – yes – to share new experiences that can become new happy memories. If you will be alone during the Christmas holiday period, know that this is an issue for many. The urge to isolate may be even higher as you imagine your friends and colleagues celebrating a wonderful Christmas in a home full of people. Despite the urge to keep your head under the covers, try to leave your home. If you're not able to attend community events or volunteer this year due to the pandemic, taking a walk or dropping off gifts at people's doorsteps might be a more feasible alternative.
Also keep in mind that social media is not necessarily a good idea during this time, as it increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Let your friends and colleagues know that Christmas and New Year's are a difficult time for you and that you’re sad about spending them by yourself. Even if you’re not seeking an invitation to someone’s home on Christmas Day, it will still help you to speak about your feelings.
If you will be spending the occasion with family but still tend to isolate yourself, talking about your emotions with a close friend can help. You may ask someone you know to be available for a quick chat or text when needed. You can let your family know that you’re worried about Christmas and that you’re not sure how you'll handle it.
It's okay to want personal space when you're grieving, but be aware of the time you're spending alone and limit it if necessary. This may mean some advance planning on your part, and making sure others are aware of the situation. Ask for someone to check in on you periodically just to make sure you’re okay. They will very likely be happy to do it and relieved that you told them how they can help.
Tip 8: Sharing (memories) is caring
During Grief Awareness Week we posted the quote "Say their name: - I'm thinking about them anyway." This is particularly applicable to holiday gatherings with family.
Many times well-meaning loved ones hesitate to mention a person who is missing because they fear upsetting someone. The loss soon becomes the "elephant in the room". This is true not only for the first Christmas after a loss, but for all of the special occasions that follow for years to come.
However talking about loved ones will actually make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable. Memories can be painful, but pretending they don't exist makes the pain and isolation even worse.
It may be scary at first, but all it takes is for you to say, “this song makes me think of … This was his favourite.” Others may then feel relieved that the ice has been broken and finally feel comfortable enough to say what they’ve been thinking about. This is a recipe for connection and a much easier, happier occasion. You may even wish to create a new tradition around sharing favourite memories or remembering someone with a special song, poem, meal or object.
Share about those you grieve; it’s a way to honour and include them in the special day. It's also a way to grow together as a family and help you all feel less alone in your grief.
We're here for you
If this article resonated with you and you feel like it's time for you to start healing the pain, please reach out to us. We have Grief Recovery Specialists all over the UK as well as those working online who can support you no matter where you are in the world. If you're still not sure about what the Grief Recovery Method is, you can read about its evidence base here or explore some of our other articles. Last but not least, you can discover it for yourself by ordering a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook, which also makes a wonderful gift for those you love. Whatever you decide, you do not have to wait in pain. You can begin the new year with more energy and peace.
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