Coping with grief during Christmas
As Christmas approaches and most of us look forward to celebrating, we know so many people are carrying grief this year, from those bereaved through Covid and other deaths. Most therapists have seen the effect of the virus and I have worked with a lot of grief in the last few months, holding the pain and shock as well as the complete and utter despair this pandemic has wrecked in those left behind. But whether it be Covid or any death grief completely lays waste to those bereaved.
How can bereaved people claim some joy during the holidays? It may feel strange but we can indeed still feel joy during this time of year. Even with the pain of grief. That is the dialectical nature of human emotions.
It is important to know that there are no rules in these ideas below. I have found them helpful to talk through with my clients and their families over the years. But I have always reiterated in therapy, that there is no pressure. If the person bereaved doesn’t feel ready or feels a wave of resistance, they have an unlimited ‘get out of participating’ card. But similarly if their loved ones do want to participate in any of the ideas then they cannot ruin it for them.
Everyone’s experience and journey of grief is as unique as they are and as different as their relationship with the person who passed away. It is important for each person in the family to respect each other’s way of grieving even if they don’t understand it. To that end if a member of the family does not want to participate in Christmas celebrations or to memorialise the deceased, then that should be respected but in addition that should not stop those that do want to.
I’ve urged clients to discuss these ideas with their families, write them out on paper or even white boards in some cases to display over the festive period. Communication really is key especially when talking can be hard, communication is still possible.
One family listed the festive days with times and activities, some involving remembering the deceased and that worked for them but that isn’t by any means what I suggest. That family was newly bereaved and that structure was a life raft they needed in a time of chaos.
If the bereavement is fresh such a structure can help with all activities that can help the family get through Christmas. This is really helpful if the deceased is a parent and small children are involved. It can help the remaining parent focus and get through a time that can often be chaotic and as overwhelming as a sea of pain. Be sure to add in lots of accepting help and support to your list if you are that remaining parent, self-care is the biggest gift you can give yourself in the first Christmas you are bereaved. If the bereavement isn’t new it can still help to reclaim Christmas and create new traditions and things to do.
There are so many ideas to bring the deceased into the Christmas celebrations with little rituals. These can be discussed as a family where again communication is key. For example a small Christmas tree for a deceased parent with tree ‘decorations’ cut from magazine pages or printed from the internet of a parents favourite things, laminated and hung on the tree. Or memorial photo Christmas baubles hung on the actual Christmas tree is another idea. A grave site visit and adorning the grave with decorations. Or perhaps preparing the deceased's favourite food.
These are all pretty obvious and open ideas but they do not need to be as clear if the pain around the deceased passing is too raw. Some clients of mine have felt that after discussing their feelings with their family they are met with resistance in bringing the deceased into the Christmas celebrations. They then have chosen to remember the passed person in their own way with a special walk in a place that the deceased loved, writing a letter to them in a journal or, as one client did, making sure she ate her mother’s favourite donuts on boxing day.
As the years pass some of these become new Christmas traditions and part of your family's culture. I myself make sure I hang my mother’s wooden Christmas ornaments on the tree and ensure I’ve put in an order of her favourite German Spekulatius biscuits to remember her by. Without much fuss and ritual. As the years have passed I’ve woven her favourites into the culture of my family’s Christmas however it took patience, pain and perseverance. As everything involving grief does.