Grieving during the festive period
As we are approaching the countdown to Christmas time, many houses and towns are decorating their streets with sparkly lights and decorations. Many families are making plans for Christmas festivities in the community and together, while many children create their lists for Father Christmas and practice school concerts.
On the surface, Christmas is presented as a happy occasion to be enjoyed. However, for many people, this is simply not the case. For those who are grieving lost loved ones, Christmas can be an extremely painful time. Not only are festive gatherings and cheer far from uplifting for many people struggling under the weight of grief, but this annual occasion highlights the approaching end of the year. For those bereaved during this year, next year will be the first that their loved one isn’t alive to share with them and for those grieving longer-term losses, the new year represents another year passed. This can often bring up feelings of disbelief that ‘another year has passed’ since they last spoke to or saw their loved one.
Christmas is a difficult season to escape. Adverts and the sale of event tickets start as early as September and by November, it can be difficult to leave the house without seeing some reminder. These can serve as painful grief wave triggers for the bereaved. Causing a cascade of emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration and a spiral of thoughts about what once was and what now is. Of course, we are all individuals, who react and experience things in our own way. So for some bereaved people, there might be comfort in the Christmas season, the coming together with family and comfort in memories of previous Christmases with their lost loved one. The light of the festival period may be uplifting for many grievers, but some of those people may experience guilt for feeling happy following their loss.
The important thing to remember is that there is no normal in grief. There’s no manual to follow, no ‘I shoulds’ to adhere to. If you are grieving, become aware of how you’re feeling and extend self-compassion to yourself, as you would to a dear friend.
5 things that might help you navigate grief during the festive period
1. Don’t feel you need to please other people
If people pleasing is something you struggle with, I appreciate this might be difficult. But it’s important to do what feels right for you - this will vary for person to person. Maybe you might want to avoid social gatherings and withdraw this year, or maybe you would prefer to be around people. Some people may prefer to make plans, while others may want to see how they feel on the day.
Communication is key. Let people around you know what you need and put any boundaries in place, that feel necessary to help you through this time. Release any feelings of guilt that arise from needing to change plans, decline events or leave early. Prioritise taking care of yourself.
2. Honour your loved one’s memory
This might involve a new ritual, such as visiting the cemetery or memorial to lay a wreath or flowers. You might want to cook their favourite meal; eat their favourite food; toast them with their favourite drink; light a candle on Christmas morning to burn all day for them in representation of their light; watch a film they enjoyed or carry out a tradition you once shared.
Your loved one may have died, but their memory lives on through you and their love will always be in your heart. Bringing them into the day in a way that you can manage, can be comforting for some.
3. Accept that things might not feel the same, now your loved one is gone
If this is the first Christmas without your loved one, you might not be able to accept this yet and that’s OK. In fact, even if you lost your loved one many years ago, feelings of disbelief can still arise this time of the year.
Give yourself permission to accept where you are in your grief. Let yourself feel all the feelings; cry if you need to cry; scream into a pillow if you feel angry; withdraw or distract yourself - or a combination of it all. Whatever you need to get through each day. You are going through enough, without the added pressure of self-inflicted rules or taking on expectations from others.
4. Try to let go of any feelings of guilt that arise from enjoying yourself
It is common for those who are grieving to feel an expectation that they should be feeling sad and unhappy following bereavement. Some people may believe they shouldn’t be enjoying themselves and might end up feeling guilty as a result of this. Remember feelings are temporary, they come and they go. Just because you are enjoying the moment, doesn’t mean you aren’t grieving for your lost loved one or missing them.
Notice the feelings of guilt arise and remind yourself, “I deserve to be happy and enjoy this moment”. Release the guilt with an out-breath. Grieving is life-changing and challenging, you deserve to feel happy and have a break from grief when these times arise. Remember, your loved one doesn’t live in your pain, they live in your heart and your memories.
5. Express your thoughts and feelings about missing your loved one
You won’t bring the mood down by including memories of your lost loved one with other family members, you will bring them into the day. It’s OK to feel sad because you miss them, it’s not ‘ruining the day’. Often, there can be a culture or belief of ‘having to be strong’, this can result in everybody being strong for each other and silently struggling inside.
You can feel more than one way about something; happy to be together celebrating Christmas and sad because your lost loved one isn’t there with you all. If you are really missing your loved one and feel a longing to talk to them, you might find it helpful to write a letter or Christmas card to them or to talk to their photograph. This way you are expressing what you would like to say, rather than bottling this up.
Above all else please try not to judge or beat yourself up over your reactions to the festive period, or indeed any celebratory occasion or anniversary. There are things that are common to many people during grief, but it is also a very individual process. So try not to look around and measure yourself against how others are grieving or set unrealistic expectations for yourself.
There is no wrong or right way to grieve through the festive period (or indeed at all), there’s your way of getting through it and doing what feels right for you. If you are struggling with grief and would like to work through it in counselling, please get in touch to book a session. I work with clients in person, online and by telephone.
If you live locally to Leigh-on-Sea (or can get here), you’re very welcome to join our free bereavement support group. We meet on the second Tuesday of each month at 10:20am. Please email me for further information.