December is here. Are you anxious about the approach of the ‘festive’ season – Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali and other seasonal celebrations, with New Year as the bookend – and wondering how you will cope with your grief at this time? If so, this post is for you.
When we are grieving, sometimes we have a sense of what we “should” be doing to live with the loss of our loved one from our life. When it comes to Christmas, especially the first few Christmases since our loss, it is quite possible we will struggle figuring out how to manage everything, our emotions included. We miss him or her very much, and the sadness of that gap in our home and life might be overwhelming. We could wonder how we’re going to manage a Christmas party or a Christmas lunch, or how we are going to cope with being alone. Those whose spouse has died might feel particularly lonely.
I think most of us know deep inside how we want to manage things, but sometimes the reactions and responses of other people can make it harder to follow through on our preferences. Family members, friends or work colleagues might expect us to take part in festivities that we have always attended. We might have people – especially younger children – relying upon us and we don’t want to fail them. Not everyone will support how we decide to manage the season; they might seem to expect something different from us. They could be blunt about it, or we might just get a whiff in the atmosphere.
On the other hand, we might be surprised that we do feel like celebrating. Maybe we want to try to forget our sorrows for a while. We might actually want to attend the work Christmas party, or the family get-together, or sit cosily at home, watching Christmas TV with chocolates and a glass of something or other at our side. The hazard here is that the moment we start enjoying ourselves, we might start feeling bad, as though we are failing our loved one by being happy.
The potential feelings of failure can make the festive season – and any time in our grieving – feel quite overwhelming.
There’s no rulebook for grief, and no ‘failing’
Four winters back I was taking driving lessons and my first driving test was booked for just before Christmas. It didn’t go well and I failed with lots of minor errors. There was no shiny new driving license under the Christmas tree that week, nor in the following February. Happily, in April I did pass – third time was the charm.
But going back to that first test – it was a failure – definitely! And this was discouraging. On the other hand, at least I had the experience of taking a test and working through the natural nervousness. At least I understood how it worked. At least I realised what I needed to work on to improve my driving. So, in some respects it wasn’t a complete failure but something to chalk up to experience.
Grief is nothing like learning to drive. There is no “Highway Code” that tells the rules of the road or how to perform manoeuvres. There is no 50 minute time span or any set length of time to prove how well you can manage things. You don’t have an examiner sitting at your side either – although sometimes friends or family can appear to be taking that role by being perhaps just a bit too bossy.
How you manage your grief has nothing to do with failing. Grief is about adjusting the best you can to the changed circumstances of your life after a loved one has died. That adjustment is a bit different for everyone. All you can do is what feels right to you, what brings you comfort, what helps you feel close to your loved one if that’s what you’re wishing for.
Of course, this is bearing in mind your responsibilities. If you have young children or the elderly in your circle, you may still find yourself organising activities, preparing meals and doing things that perhaps you’re not in the mood for. That’s okay, provided you also give yourself time to do what you want to do.
A new life experience
Whether your past Christmases have been studiously ignored, fun-filled or faith-based – or a mixture of them all, considering how your life circumstances have changed with your bereavement, it won’t be surprising if your outlook on this season has changed too.
Feelings are rarely permanent. Each year you might experience the turning of the seasons differently. You might struggle with loneliness, or your difficulty might be managing the expectations of others. You might wish it were soon over, or you might want to escape into the sentimentality and friendliness of the season. You might enjoy gift buying or giving, or you might be struggling to heat the house. Your faith may underpin your celebrations, and songs may bring cheer, or you might find “Christmas joy” to be in short supply.
Don’t feel like you’ve failed if this season doesn’t go perfectly. Not every decision works out to be the best one. Maybe you will end up wishing you had accepted that invitation, or maybe you end up somewhere you wish you weren’t. Excuse yourself. Next time you can try it differently. You are managing a new life experience and you are not a failure, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are.
If the arrival of December is filling you with dread, try to do something each day that lifts your mood, even if it is just for a few moments. Take a breath of fresh air, enjoy a cup of something, read a book or listen to some music. These ‘me’ moments are vital for getting through the season.
Remember – there is no rule-book for the mourner at Christmas – or at any time. There is no prescribed number of tears to cry, or prohibition on laughter. Live your experience without pressure. Try to relax, taking it a day at a time.
For bereaved parents in particular, here is a very useful booklet and links to further reading: The Compassionate Friends | Coping with Christmas (tcf.org.uk)