Christmas is a time to celebrate and cosy up with those closest to us, enjoying our traditions and socialising with friends and family that we don’t see as often as we’d like. But what happens when the one person you want to celebrate with is missing? The season changes from a run-up of excitement and anticipation, to a countdown of dread and triggers.
What are the challenges?
I’ve spoken to so many grieving people this year that wish they could just hibernate for the whole festive season. The dark evenings can really highlight the loneliness of your grief; with the cold providing less inclination to leave the house, many people find themselves alone with their difficult thoughts and memories, with fewer distractions from them.
There also tends to be many social events this time of year, many of which you would have attended with that loved one. This creates its own challenges – it feels hard to go, knowing there will be an empty chair at the table and seeing others with their loved ones, but if you don’t go you may also worry that people will stop inviting you, adding an extra layer of pressure.
This will be many people’s first Christmas spent alone, after the death of their loved one leaves them with no relations to spend it with. This is incredibly lonely, as not only are you spending the day alone, potentially with very little outward contact, but you’re also very aware that almost everyone else in the country is spending the day as you’d have wanted to, surrounded by loved ones and making memories.
Even if you have friends and family to spend Christmas with, it can still be a difficult day full of bittersweet memories and grief triggers, with your feelings of loss amplified in comparison to other days.
One of the most helpful things you can do for both yourself and for those around you is to communicate your needs. Grief is tricky and awkward, it’s hard for the bereaved to know what feels most helpful, never mind those around them. Communicating your needs and concerns takes out the guesswork and prevents people from accidentally causing harm or avoiding the situation altogether.
Remember that the season does end and that everything will settle down again. These intense feelings are temporary, and once Christmas and New Year are over, the chances are that your grief will find a level again.
Making plans that are flexible allows you wiggle room as it’s hard to know how you’re going to feel on the day. Many people actually report finding the run-up worse than the day itself, due to the worry of how we might feel. Flexible planning takes the pressure off and allows you to work with where you are on the day.
Making a point of acknowledging your grief and including the person in the day is a lovely way of continuing the bond with them, even if it’s only something small like lighting a candle in their memory. This can help with feelings of guilt for still being here to enjoy the day even though they aren’t, and helps prevent you from feeling like they are being forgotten. You will more than likely be thinking about them anyway, so finding a way to include them allows you to express those feelings rather than trying to repress them.
Reach out for support if you need it, whether from family or friends or from specialist groups or professionals. Talking to someone about how you are feeling can help to release some of those difficult emotions, helping the day feel less overwhelming. There are various grief helplines open over the bank holidays or try talking to friends or family members that you can be honest with about your feelings, and who you can trust to listen rather than trying to ‘fix’ your situation.
Christmas and New Year is naturally a very difficult time when you have an empty chair at your table, whatever your circumstances. The next few weeks may be hard, but they will end. Hold onto hope that the dark days will pass and spring will soon be on the way, with hopeful bursts of colour and sunshine to make things seem just that bit more bearable.