Ghosts of Christmas past: How to manage grief

Our tables over Christmas are packed with life, young and old but often clamouring for a seat at the table are the loved ones that have left this earth. The more people I lose, the less the food budget is, but the mental tariff far outweighs that! It is not just the big day itself but the run-up throughout December that can be extremely hard to navigate with a hole in your heart and presents that do not need to be bought.

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Whatever your own personal cocktail of loss, including partners, parents, children, siblings and friends they can all demand attention at once during this period of expected celebration. No wonder people feel overwhelmed and like it is all too much – that is probably because, for many people, it is!

Sadly, the more we loved, the more we grieve. The stronger our bond, the stronger the depth of emotion; for those who can access their feelings they may not be able to escape them while others can hide behind a mask of busyness. Often, the bereaved feel they “should” be moving on, or “need” to stop feeling a certain way by a certain time. There is no time limit.

Sharing grief stories

We can find a connection with others in our grief. I connected with someone half my age over one sentence, as we knew we were in the same club having only one parent left. You know, and they know – a pain only available to those at the same hideous life level. However, all our stories are, of course, unique. The life stories of our lost ones are never to be emulated but need to be relived and retold, endlessly for many who are working through bereavement.

We can get caught up in sharing our stories, which all have a place and serve to connect us, but it is integral we attend to our own grief and how we are feeling in order for us to process what is happening. Boundaries between what is ours and what is others need to be considered. Not everyone needs counselling, but it can help some people navigate the grief cycle and find a way through if they feel stuck and continually overwhelmed.

Grief does not disappear. If we do not work through and with our emotions, grief can manifest in the body, alongside any anger and frustration we carry.

The body needs a way to expel these feelings. Working with someone to find a way that can suit you will help if you are not someone who avidly exercises, has an outlet or seems to find themselves in a holding zone, stuck.

The recycling of grief at Christmas and anniversaries

Anniversaries and key times like Christmas and celebrations open back up the grief vortex to maximum capacity. This is normal but you can find yourself being sucked back down to a place, deeply hidden, that you thought you had moved on from. However, people know when they have crossed over their boundary of what they feel they can safely handle. Waves will come at key times.

Navigating your grief and other people

Grief brings many complexities. You have your own grief to deal with but have to navigate through how other people treat you, how you deal with the grief of others. The circumstances of the death can often add to the complexities.

“Be kind to yourself” and “Do what you need to” are often phrases we get told, but do some people really know how to do that? Is that just something else we should or should not be doing? An added pressure of what we should do. Other people assume a disguise and are unable to take it off and reveal how they are truly feeling to others.

Spending time with others and talking about your loved one is so important to the healing process – if you are able to find people who will give you time and space to do this. People who allow you to be, not try and make it better, just stay with you, not try to move you on into ‘normal life.’ But not everyone can be themselves with others after a bereavement – it is just not that easy for many.

How do people handle your grief?

People’s reactions to you and your grief can be difficult to navigate. Everyone is different and some cannot cope with talking about death and the dead, others are more comfortable. It can be exhausting with your own thoughts and emotions but having to marry them with someone else’s and work out if you can say or behave in a certain way, adds another layer of complexity; pushing down feelings that are clamouring for attention, whilst we consider others.

What helps?

There is no grief rule book and every one of us is different. You or your family and friends will know if you have reached your limit in dealing with grief alone and with your support network. That’s when seeking counselling can help.

A place and space just for you and with the help of a trained therapist you can give time and breathing space for your emotions. A place to look at what will help us grief and move through some of those frightening feelings or any anger or denial you may clutch. A place to learn tolerance. A place to be with someone fully attending to you.

I would love to list a top 10 ‘Ways to deal with grief’, but I cannot. Grief is handled differently and what works for one person would not work for another. Exercise, writing, meeting friends and family who knew the person, crying, laughing, creativity, memory books, charity work are all stalwarts but sometimes we feel stuck and like we cannot move forward from painful emotions.

Setting aside time to allow yourself to grieve has helped some of my clients. Writing letters or diary entries to the deceased or doing an activity they used to do together can also help one feel more connected. Allocated time to give to your thoughts can also help some people.

Acknowledging your sadness when it pelts you like a snowball in the face, out of nowhere and then staying with it, can be too hard for many people. Therapy can help you to tolerate those emotions and ultimately face them, so when you do get pelted, they are manageable.

How the grief hits us

If we toast to all those individuals who are not with us this Christmas, we may be left with an extremely bad headache, but they will demand attention and need to be acknowledged. They do not need an invitation and often arrive unannounced. Some will welcome them, and others will try to close the door but, remember, there is an army of us out there all in certain grief clubs.

Do not think you are on your own. After the blizzard of the immediate death hits, and for those who have come through the white-out, those sniper snowballs are the best we can hope for. Learning tolerance and accepting they will hit, is where many aim to be.

So, while critical members might not make the festive catch-up photos, their image will shine bright in our thoughts as we learn to continue our relationship with them. Our lives become fuller, but the grief hole remains the same depth. So, I will raise a glass to all those passed this Christmas, whenever they choose to arrive, with tears, laughter and huge sadness. If that is you too, know you are far from alone.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Leeds LS16 & LS1
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Written by Vicky Warburton, Reg BACP, PG Dips, Counsellor and Psychotherapist. BA (Hons)
Leeds LS16 & LS1

Vicky Warburton works in private practice in Leeds LS1 and LS16. She also works for a charity that makes counselling available to those on low incomes. She has a keen interest in attachment, trauma and how it resonates in the body.

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