There are certain days in the calendar that are so much harder than others when you are grieving the loss of someone who has died. Birthdays, Anniversaries, Mother’s/Father’s Day and of course, Christmas.
Christmas can often be the hardest of all of these, because it is so much more than just one day; for all of December (and often well before that) we are surrounded by reminders that Christmas is coming. Also, birthdays and anniversaries tend to be dates unique to you and a more personal experience, so Christmas has more in common with universal dates such as Mother’s/Father’s Day, Thanksgiving or other religious celebrations where lots of people are celebrating at the same time. But Christmas is just….so extra. We all know that the holiday season can be stressful, but never more so than when you are grieving. The anticipation of this stress can also hit long before Christmas day itself; I have had clients worrying about how they will manage Christmas months in advance, especially (but not exclusively) in that first year of bereavement. Not knowing how to navigate the season when everyone else is talking about their plans and asking you about yours. How do we live and function in a world where we feel expected to join in with celebrations when we are feeling so raw and in so much pain? It can be incredibly isolating.
So here are 25 ways you can manage your grief at Christmas. An advent of grief management if you like. But one where you can open all the windows at once and chose which suggestions resonate with you. Your relationship with the person who has died is completely unique, as are the continuing relationships in your life, therefore some suggestions will automatically feel more relevant than others. But also, perhaps there may be some suggestions that are a little outside your comfort zone, or ones you might not have ever thought you would attempt which could have surprising results. It can feel so tempting to pretend everything is just dandy and you are perfectly fine because you don’t want to rain on others parade, especially at Christmas, but this is ultimately more stressful in the long run. I want to tell you that it is okay to say that you are struggling this year because you are bereaved.
1. Be honest about how your loss means you might not be fully present for all the festivities. This is likely to be far less stressful and exhausting than trying to fake it to protect others' feelings.
2. Pick and choose what events you might feel able to attend. And have an exit strategy! Say you may just stay a little while; that takes away the pressure to stay longer than you can manage.
3. It is absolutely fine not to send cards. If you feel you ‘must’, you can send one ecard to lots of recipients.
4. Talk to the people you usually send gifts to. It may feel too overwhelming or inconsequential to get caught up in the consumerism of Christmas this year. Come to an agreement on the number of gifts and prioritise who to send them to (children for example).
5. If gifting is something that you enjoy and was an important part of your relationship with the person who died, you could buy a gift you would have chosen for them and donate it to charity.
6. Talk to the children in your life about how you are feeling. It’s important for children to know that death can make us more emotional than normal. And it’s important for them to realise that we can be happy and sad at the same time. Their Christmas matters very much to us, but we might need some time to tend to our other feelings too.
7. If you don’t want to put up a tree, don’t. There is no law to say we have to decorate our homes for all of December.
8. If you want to turn your home into a fairy grotto of twinkling lights, that is absolutely fine too!
9. Find a middle ground; perhaps you might want to have a more muted display than you normally would. A wreath, some pinecones or a few treasured ornaments perhaps.
10. Light a candle to remember the person who has died. It doesn’t have to be an advent candle, but they can be a lovely way to have a little nightly ritual of remembrance and to bring some light to the darkness.
11. Christmas rituals are not set in stone. If you don’t want to follow all of your family rituals this year, that’s okay. Have that discussion with the people you usually spend the day with.
12. Remember that everyone’s grief is different. It’s tough when you want to abandon the Christmas rituals but your sister insists they stay the same because that’s what is important to her this year. See if it is possible to compromise.
13. Rituals are things that we do more than once. This year you could start a new ritual in memory of the person who has died. This helps give this and future Christmas’s new meaning.
14. If you want to have pizza instead of spending hours preparing a huge meal you won’t enjoy, is that such a bad thing? No. No, it isn’t.
15. It may be the season of excess, but moderation might be helpful this year. Overindulging in food, drink or drugs might bring short term comfort or pleasure, but it can also get messy very quickly. You might find your tolerance is much less than it usually is as you process your grief.
16. But do think about having some structure to Christmas Day. This can make it easier to manage. Fit in a walk, plan when to watch a film, have a bubble bath, when you will make calls and when you will eat.
17. Who are the people that will make life easier for you and who will add to your stress? Try to spend lots more time with the first group and minimise time with the latter.
18. Ask for help. It might not come naturally to you, and it can feel frustrating when people don’t offer. But if you keep saying you’re ‘fine’, who will know that really, you’re not fine at all?
19. It is okay to grieve, it’s okay to feel whatever emotions are coming up for you and it’s okay to really, really, really miss the person who isn’t here to share Christmas’s with you anymore.
20. Take lots of little breaks. Time out just for you.
21. At the beginning of the month, December can feel overwhelming. Take it a day at a time. If that still feels impossible, try to get through the hour. Remember this too shall pass.
22. There are no right and wrongs. Ignore anyone who tells you what you ‘should’ be doing.
23. Find pleasure in the small things. Yes, you are grieving, and it can feel gut wrenchingly awful, but it is okay to feel happy too. Let go of guilt; all your emotions are valid.
24. You can still speak with the person who has died. They are always going to be part of your life, even although they are not here anymore. Wish them a Merry Christmas. You can do this anywhere; it doesn’t need to be at a graveside if this does not bring you comfort.
25. Remember Christmas’s past. Share those stories. There is comfort in the repetition of how your granny used to tell you that the old songs were the best. Raise a toast to her and tell the story of her up and rock and rolling with the rest. Keep her a place in Christmas present and Christmas’s future. The memories live in you and always will.