(An update of an older post)
The shops are full of it, the TV schedules already have those corny Christmas films, the pubs are offering festive meals, and we are well advanced into the countdown of shopping days.
But quietly, on the pages of forums and support groups, and even more in silent, unseen corners, there are any number of people who are dreading this supposedly cheerful season. Christmas can be a very difficult time of year when you’re mourning the loss of one who was dear to you.
Of course it’s not only Christmas. Our lives are punctuated by special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and festivals such as New Year, Chanukah, Eid and Diwali. We dress up, share gifts, eat and drink our favourite treats. A good percentage of family photos are taken during these happy events. But for some of us, these celebrations make our hearts sink. A chair sits empty.
When you first lose someone significant in your life – a partner, a child, a parent, a close friend – the agony of your initial grief may feel overwhelming. The absence of the one you love has created a great void; you feel as though you are teetering at the edge, your footing unsure as you face a future without their presence. It may seem impossible that you will ever again find joy in daily living. Your days feel constantly framed by your loss.
As time passes, you discover ways to keep going, and gradually the agonising days become fewer. You find meaning in your life; you start to smile again. Although your heart still yearns for your loved one, you are coping with your grief. It may not be only necessity that sends you back to work; you find that activity helps. Your life will never be the same again yet nevertheless, you are living it as best as you can.
But grief isn’t a linear process – it doesn’t follow a straight line. Just because yesterday you were in a place of relative calm does not guarantee how you will feel tomorrow. If “tomorrow” is one of those special occasions, you might want to brace yourself. It’s only natural that you will feel sad.
The very worst might be the first time this event takes place without your loved one, but subsequent years can still be painful, as the permanence of their absence slowly sinks in. Now, in this new reality of your life, there will be no cards or gifts to share with the one who was special to you. Their smiling face will not appear in any new photographs. There is an empty place at the table.
You might find yourself dreading this time of year. You might dread the loneliness that is now a part of your life, or you might feel awkward accepting invitations to parties and celebrations that do not match your mood. You might feel hurt that your friends or family don’t mention your loved one. They could have good intentions, not wanted to remind you of your sorrow, but this could make you feel lonelier in your grief. You may also feel more emotional, as you sort through memories good and bad of previous years.
It is natural to struggle when someone significant is missing from your side. These special occasions when so many other people are celebrating can be extra difficult, but they can be survived. You know yourself best, and in time you will be able to develop your own coping strategies. For the time being, here are a few ideas you might like to consider.
- Plan ahead. Christmas comes on 25th December, and there’s no escaping. As much as you might wish to avoid the day, it will arrive – and it will arrive with fanfare. It is generally better to have some idea in advance of how you want to pass the time.
- Be kind to yourself. This occasion will be different to what it used to be. Consider what you can cope with. You don’t have to fulfil every expectation you have of yourself, nor do you need to accept every invitation.
- It is up to you whether in to include your loved one in the “conversation.” Let the people around you know if you are comfortable talking about him or her.
- Allow yourself time to grieve. You have lost someone who is important to you and your life has changed. You may have a partner or other family members to take care of during the holidays, but try to make moments for yourself. Take some comfort in remembering the happy moments you shared together with your loved one. Celebrate their life.
- If you shared some traditions together with your loved one, you might want to find ways to continue. For instance, drinking hot chocolate on Christmas morning, taking a stroll in the park on New Year’s Day come rain, snow or shine, having a birthday breakfast in bed, watching a particular television programme, going to a religious service, and so on.
- On the other hand, you should never feel that you have to continue something that is no longer bringing you comfort, and sometimes it can be better to find new ways to mark the day. Some people like to visit their loved one’s grave, or light candles, or give a toast to him or her at a family meal, or even volunteer at a charity event or go away for a few days.
- Many churches and support groups hold special memorial services around this time. You might want to participate and be comforted in the company of others who, like you, are grieving.
- If your faith is a comfort to you, participate in Christmas (or other religious) services if you wish, but be prepared for your emotions. It’s hard to know what might get to you. Singing about angels in heaven has sometimes sent me into floods of tears as I think about my angels in heaven.
- You might like to find practical ways of celebrating the memory of your loved one. For instance, a gift to charity in their name, and/or a new ornament on the tree in their memory.
- Avoid trying to drown your sorrows in drink or other substances. Besides being unhealthy physically, your emotions could be made worse, and you could even find yourself losing control.
- Avoid what gets you down! If you are feeling smothered by sentimental Christmas ads and TV programmes, switch off the TV. If you can’t bear the loud rush of the shops, try shopping online.
- If you are going through particularly difficult moments, if you are overwhelmed and feel unable to cope, seek for help. A friend or family member may be able to offer a listening ear. In a crisis you can call the Samaritans on their 24/7 helpline on 116 123 (free call).
- Finally, remember that this is just one day. The whole of life is many days, and fortunately, most days are not quite as painful.
As the years go by, you will probably find it starts to get easier to bear the unavoidable glitter of these occasions. I hope so.
(Got some tried and tested advice? If so please share in comments. Thanks!)
- Not failing at Christmas – not feeling a failure, no matter how we cope with Christmas when we’re grieving.
PS. If you have friends who are grieving
What matters most to us is that our loved ones are remembered. You can make this season a little easier by mentioning them in your greetings, in person or in a card. If we are now alone, please think about inviting us for a meal – not necessarily a big Christmas party. You could make a donation to a charity in our loved one’s name, or buy a gift in their memory to be given to one of the many charities collecting gifts for needy children or the homeless. Just something to show you care about us, and you also care about our loved ones.
Particularly if this is one of the first few Christmases since our loss, be aware just how vulnerable and emotional we may be feeling. A hug and a listening ear can’t make it all better, but it can make it easier to bear.
- Teardrops replacing baubles: Watch “Say their name at Christmas” – a video by The Compassionate Friends