I have a love hate relationship with this time of year.
Christmas, I love, but the accompanying “silly season” not so much.
I suspect I am not alone.
But for many of my clients who have lost loved ones Christmas can be one of the hardest times of the year. One of many difficult times I might add, but made harder because the rest of the world is seemingly caught up in the festivities of Christmas at a time when grief presses in hard.
So, if you have lost a loved one and find this time of year less than merry – this blog is written for you.
There are of course no words that can ever be written that will take your pain away, nor do I pretend that what I write here will help every one of you – it can’t. Only you can face what is yours to face and respond in a way that only you know how. I can only hope and pray that these words help you face Christmas and that you find something here that might help you better navigate this season.
Christmas after the loss of a loved one will never be the same. There will be an empty place at the table, one less gift to buy, one less hug to give, and there will be silence where conversation once flowed. You will feel the aloneness, whether you are with others or not. It will be one of many “anniversary”moments you will have to journey through, so it is important to work out how you might do that in a way that means you survive, rather than get pulled under by yet another wave of grief.
1. Embracing your grief
That might sound like an odd thing to suggest. Your grief is with you constantly like it or not! Some of you reading might be wishing your grief away most days, wondering when you will ever stop feeling sad.
I am not suggesting you wallow in the grief, but rather that you acknowledge that the grief might be quite intense particularly at Christmas,and be ready to embrace that as part of this season – and embrace it in a positive way, knowing that feeling grief is but another expression of your love.
“Grief is the last act of love we have to give those we loved. Where there is deep grief there is great love”Unkown
If we have loved others deeply, we will inevitably know deep loss and grief. Seeing grief as an extension of love can make it easier to embrace and accept as it surfaces at times like Christmas.
2. Adjusting traditions
Christmas is often full of family and cultural traditions. Think about the traditions you have and how you feel about keeping them or changing them.
Think about how you might deal with your now “empty chair”.
You might want to literally keep it empty to honour the place your loved one took. Or if that feels too overwhelming, you might want to change things – don’t set your usual table, eat buffet or picnic style or set around table instead. Planning ahead for these typically painful triggers can mean they have less of an impact on the day.
Think about your Christmas traditions. Sometimes keeping to those traditions will help you maintain a sense of “routine” that might help you navigate the day. Sometimes starting new traditions can help you acknowledge that things will never be the same while at the same time finding a different way to mark the Christmas season.
It might be that you set up a different Christmas tree, or let your kids or younger family or friends decorate. It might be that you accept an invitation to join others for Christmas, or invite other family or friends to spend part of the day with you. I know a friend who chose to volunteer at the Salvos Christmas Day lunch who found that experience the perfect distraction on Christmas Day. Being in a crowded place where no-one knows your story, with a focus on helping others might give Christmas a new focus. But if crowds aren’t your thing, you might be better off planning a get-away to the beach or the country to spend time away from the hustle and bustle. There is not right or wrong way – only your unique way and that will take time to think out, try out and see what works best for you depending on how you are feeling at the time.
3. Include your loved one
Even though your loved one isn’t here with you anymore, you can still include them in your Christmas. Some families I know have put together memory books that they read over at anniversary times, others hang an ornament or a Christmas stocking, or light a candle for their loved one. Others write a card to their loved one as a way of sharing how much they are missed each year.
Most find it important to share memories of their loved ones with others who will share theirs too. If you “hear” your loved one’s voice or their laugh pop up in conversations – include them by sharing with others what they would’ve said or what they would’ve done. In doing these things we keep our loved ones “alive”.
“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”Banksy
4. Take care of yourself
Taking care of your own physical and mental wellbeing is so important when trying to handle the stress that comes with surviving Christmas while managing grief. Be aware of extremes – eating or drinking too much, sleeping too much or not enough. Take breaks through the day as you need to – go for a walk, or get some fresh air. Have an “escape plan” or a signal to share with a trusted support person if you feel overwhelmed.
5. Finding hope
I know that it is so terribly hard, when you are in the depths of the pain of grief to imagine a time when you might feel joy again.Just as it is hard to imagine where to begin when you look across the forever altered landscape of your life, at the devastation left behind by the “tsunami like” wave that ripped through your existence.
I know you feel indescribable pain and heaviness now, but it will not be like this forever. Your life, shattered as it is, lies ahead of you.Your story continues. In time, when you are ready, you will begin to see new pathways to take through this foreign land of life after loss. Your eyes will see the potential for new things, seeds of hope will grow into new dreams and you will rebuild your life around the grief you have learned to embrace as a new part of you. Broken and scarred yes – but somehow more fully and deeply alive.
Knowing there is hope for that future is key.
While Christmas is many things to different people, the message of Christmas is about that Hope.
So, to you who grieve this Christmas, I pray that you will find and hold onto hope. Know that you are not alone. Know that you are surrounded by many who know grief as intimately as you and many more who love you and will do their best to walk with you, cry with you, steady you and distract you so that you survive not only Christmas but the days, weeks, months and years to come – every single day for as long as it takes.