It’s National Grief Awareness Week from December 2nd – 8th an event that feels particularly pertinent this year given the impact of the Covid19 pandemic, which has meant many people have endured a myriad of restrictions and limitations that have profoundly affected their grief. Furthermore, given the festive season is almost upon us, bereavement is further compounded for those facing their first Christmas without a loved one.
For some, there may already be gifts under the tree that will now remain unopened. Memories of Christmas’ past might initially bring a smile, but the absence of someone special at a traditional time of togetherness often amplifies feelings of loss, loneliness and grief.
In this blog, The National Bereavement Service explains that additional or renewed emotional pain are normal over the festive period and provides guidance that may help you to cope.
If you’re coping with a bereavement, especially if the death is very recent, you and your family may choose to spend time together, and even sit down for a traditional Christmas dinner, but avoid the decorations and other trappings that often form part of festive celebrations. Some cards may arrive addressed with the name of the person who has died, particularly if this is the first Christmas after their death, and, if this happens, it’s OK to just put these to one side. While Christmas may seem unavoidable in the shops and pubs, it is absolutely fine to make the celebrations as low key as you want them, or even make your home a Christmas-free zone, if that’s what works for you.
Concerned friends and relatives sometimes apply considerable pressure on a bereaved person to be with others on Christmas Day. You may want the distraction of being with others, but, if you’d prefer not to socialise, a gracious response is to say that you think you would prefer to be on your own, but would it be okay to change your mind and join them at the last minute. Knowing there is somewhere you would be welcome, even for just an hour or two, can be comforting.
It is more difficult if there are children to be entertained, because their expectations of Christmas gifts and food are governed by their peers and the world around them. Consider the timetable of Christmas and who in the family meets in which house, if geography makes this possible. It may be that a shorter than usual visit to an older grieving relative, with light refreshments, may be more manageable than a full traditional dinner. If the children themselves are affected by the death, this will allow time for sharing of memories during a quieter time, whilst allowing them to be more energetic elsewhere.
If the weather permits, an afternoon walk may also help with the management of energetic children and dogs, while some of the adults walk quietly together or rest at home.
In your own home, an escape to the kitchen or your own room may help you to stay on an even keel if Christmas involves spending time with others. If you are a guest in someone else’s home, it may help to ask if there is a room you can escape to for a few moments if you suddenly feel overwhelmed but don’t want to create a fuss by leaving. The bathroom may be an obvious choice, but is probably not a good idea for the sake of others!
It can feel very awkward if you or your guests find themselves ‘editing’ what they say to avoid mentioning the person who is now absent. Doing something to include them can be very helpful, such as lighting a candle in front of a photograph of them before sitting down to eat or opening gifts. Or you may want to begin the meal by raising a toast to their memory. Listening to or singing their favourite carol or watching their favourite film may also start new family Christmas traditions. Doing something like this gives everyone permission to share memories.
Do what helps you feel in control
Often doing things that are part of your normal routine can help people feel in control of things during this emotional time, especially if you have just managed to get back into a routine after a period of major disruption. It might just be having your usual breakfast, walking the dog or some other daily activity. Taking care of yourself is important, especially when people who might normally be there to support you are distracted by their responsibilities to their families or others.
If you will be on your own, you may be able to book a video or phone call with a friend so that you will have spoken to someone else during the day, reducing your sense of isolation. Or maybe there is someone else you know who is in a similar position to yourself and you can arrange to speak to them or get together for part of the day.
Do something completely different
Sometimes people choose to do something completely different. Is there a charity near you that provides meals to the homeless? They may well be short of volunteers at Christmas when people often travel away from home. Or perhaps you could take a short break for a change of scene?
It’s always tempting to overindulge during the festive season, especially if you’re using Christmas ‘treats’ as comfort. But, whether you consume more food or alcohol than you should, you are likely to regret it. Too much alcohol is particularly unwise, because it reduces our self-control and makes us vulnerable to emotional outbursts, of which we later feel ashamed. It may make you feel better able to cope in the moment but, when its effects wear off, it is also likely to negatively impact your mood.