How to survive the festive season when bereaved
The festive season can be a very exciting time for many people. You hear Christmas songs being played on the radio, see Christmas decorations outside and inside houses and shops; the spirit of Christmas truly penetrating our skins, letting us soak in its atmosphere. However, for those who have been bereaved, recently or a long time ago, Christmas can be one of the most challenging and isolating times to get through.
This year in particular - with so many restrictions - has been very difficult for so many people. Covid -19 has changed our lives. The way we live and work had to change and the way we are allowed to honour the deceased had to change. Only small numbers of people are allowed to funerals to say their final farewell.
People in their hundreds and thousands, not just here in UK, but globally, had to say goodbye to their loved ones this year. Not the way they would have wanted to. Not surrounded and supported by their extended family. Many had to embrace this difficult time alone, without family and friends supporting them.
Strategies to cope with the festive season
"Christmas, it’s just not the same", I hear many of my clients saying. "How am I going to survive this?" they ask.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer, however, what I do have is a few strategies that can help you along the way.
1. You matter
Please remember that you matter. Be guided by you and no one else. If you want to celebrate Christmas in a traditional way, then do so. If you don’t feel up for it, then you don’t ‘have to do Christmas’ this year.
Whichever way you decide to go, you can still acknowledge your loved one in some special way. For example, if you do decide to decorate, you can buy a bauble with their name or their picture on it and hang it on a Christmas tree. You can buy a sentimental Christmas decoration that you know your loved one would have liked and put it in a special place.
If you don’t want to do decorations this year, you can buy a candle and light it every night to remember your loved one. Perhaps place their picture nearby to remember them. If having their picture on display is too much for you, then perhaps instead have an item that used to belong to them, such as their glasses, phone, smoking pipe, watch, ring, bracelet, necklace and so on.
If you lost your child or a baby, it can be things such as their special toy, dummy, little angel or a small pendant of St. Christopher who is the patron of travellers and often placed in a coffin for small children to guide them through to the other side. Rituals such as these can help you to process your grief and offer a beautiful way of honouring your loved one.
2. Don't let others pressurise you
Don’t let others pressure you into doing something you don’t feel comfortable doing. If you don’t want to eat a special Christmas meal this year, then don’t. Only you can decide on the best way to spend Christmas. If you have the strength and energy, I would encourage you to have a short walk outside. Connecting with nature (even if it is a pavement walk through the suburbs) helps us with our mental health. It can serve as a small distraction and break up what at times seems an endless day.
Looking at the Christmas lights, decorations, hearing the birds singing can all help to calm the body and mind. If you are fortunate enough to live near the sea, why not head over to the beach for a short walk. Listening to the sounds of waves crashing can be so soothing and therapeutic.
3. Reach out for support
Very often it’s not just Christmas that is a difficult time to get through when bereaved. Special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries can be very challenging times too. Times such as these can increase our sense of isolation, loneliness and can very often heighten our anxieties or trigger depression. It is not uncommon for bereaved people to start feeling suicidal.
Thinking about suicide and the meaning of life without your loved one is very common and can be very frightening. If you feel too overwhelmed, reach out. It can be either to your friends, relatives or professionals such as doctors or therapists. If you are really struggling and it’s late at night, you can always walk into an A&E where you will be seen by a mental health professional or alternatively, you can ring Samaritans on 116 123.
If talking seems too much and you prefer to text someone, there is Shout, a 24/7 volunteer mental health text support to help you in a crisis. Text 85258.
4. Avoid social media
Please try and stay away from social media (unless social media is where you are getting your support from). Looking at pictures of your friends with their families can feel too overwhelming and too painful.
People will often post their glamorous, happy times and leave out all the heartache. This can lead to painful comparison that might leave you feeling even more lonely and isolated.
5. Be patient with yourself
Most of all, be patient with the grieving process. There is no time limit to grief. Grief takes time. Very often it’s the expectation of others that puts pressure on us to feel better. And because others expect us to feel well by a certain time (usually within six months or up to a year), we might start to pretend all is well.
This discrepancy of feelings (externally pretending to be ok but internally still grieving, feeling sad) can very often trigger depression or heighten anxiety, so be careful and always try and stay true to yourself.
There is no shame in reaching out to professionals when things get difficult. Try and find a counsellor local to you that specialises in bereavement as he/she will be the best equipped to help you along the way.