At the Family Peace Foundation we are very conscious of the fact that be it Christmas or Chanukah, the holiday season is a time when people gather together with family and friends, and that if someone you love has passed away, this time of year can be a glaring reminder of that and create a kaleidoscope of mixed emotions. When you have lost someone special, your world loses its celebratory qualities. Holidays only magnify the loss. The sadness feels sadder and the loneliness goes deeper.
For the first few years after my Mum died, Christmas time came around as a potent package full of grief triggers: the Christmas tree decorations, carols, the turkey, presents under the tree, empty chairs, missing faces, and silent voices seem to all be cruel reminders of what was missing at what should have been a time of great joy. There can be no doubt that such holidays are challenging for the bereaved.
While everyone reacts differently, a lot of people find Christmas can be a pretty difficult time – it can prompt you to react more sensitively to things or become detached from those around you. Everyone will have a different way of coping, but however you react to Christmas, it’s important that you look after yourself and have your own way of getting through the times when you’re feeling really low.
As a community service, the Family Peace Foundation offers the following advice for those coping with Christmas after a loss:
Formally remember them. Rather than avoiding the feelings of grief, lean into them. It is not the grief you want to avoid, it is the pain. Grief is the way out of the pain. Grief is our internal feelings and mourning is our external expressions. So do something to remember the person you are missing such as lighting a candle, creating an online tribute, playing their favourite music, visiting a place they loved or doing something you used to do together, writing them a card, planting a tree or sharing memories and stories with others who loved them too. Some people find putting particular Christmas ornaments/ mementoes out to remind them of a lost loved one can feel healing.
Do less this Christmas. Don’t do more than you want, and don’t do anything that does not serve your psychology and your loss. Don’t be pushed into feeling you have to do anything – remember you only have to do as much as you want to do. Leave the words “ought” and “should” out of your vocabulary. Know that some bereaved people elect to skip it altogether. Doing something completely different can help to lessen the sense of loss. Don’t get trapped. If you go to holiday events, drive yourself so you can leave if it gets to be too much.
Avoid the shops as much as possible – it can make Christmas seem more empty and shallow than it already feels. If you need to buy presents, try shopping on-line and getting gifts delivered.
Surround yourself with understanding people. Make plans to be around people who you trust and who understand that you might not be feeling very “jolly”. Let them know that you may actually prefer to be alone sometimes, and they should not be offended if this is the case.
Avoid sugar highs and lows because they naturally induce emotional lows. Also, steer clear of overeating and under-sleeping. Eat well-balanced diets with as many mood enhancing foods as possible, such as include yogurt, kefir, green tea, omega-3 rich foods (i.e. salmon, cod liver oil, etc.), and lower sugar dark chocolate
Don’t drink too much. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a Christmas drink, but avoid numbing your pain with alcohol. This will just make you feel worse in the long run. Have a glass or two, but know your limit.
Exercise. Try to exercise as this will lighten your mood and release stress. Have a walk around the block or get into the beach to breathe in sea air.
Admit grief. Do allow time for feelings. Pretending you are not in emotional pain and or that holidays is not a harder time of the year is just not the truth for you. If you hide your feelings nobody will know what your needs are or how you prefer to be comforted Trying to move forward while denying the reality of grief causes is incompatible with good mental health.
Let the tears flow. Give yourself permission to cry. Don’t keep feelings bottled up. If you have 1000 tears to cry don’t stop at 200. Crying releases excessive tension. The chemical make-up of tears verifies this. Emotional tears actually have a distinctive chemical structure that differs from tears produced by eye irritation and that emotional tears appear to play a significant role in detoxification of the body and can produce endorphins to actually relieve the pain we’re suffering.
Reach out to the disadvantaged. Some bereaved people find great comfort in using this time of year in the service of others. Volunteering to help people less fortunate than ourselves can be very healing.
Accept help. Accepting practical help with shopping, cooking, childcare, housework etc over the holiday period. If you feel as though you are not coping well, reach out to people you trust and say yes to offers of support or company.
Avoid guilt. Finally, avoid guilt trips. I remember feeling guilty for having fun after Mum died. I worked hard to remember that Mum loved this time of year, so it is okay to have fun. If you are feeling happy, go with it – it does not mean that you are forgetting or forsaking the person who is not there.
Do one thing just for YOU. Be self indulgent. If you want to watch your favourite TV programme with a glass of wine, or go for a walk to a favourite spot, or pamper yourself with a favourite treat, make sure you are able to plan this into your day and visualise it and look forward to it.
At the Family Peace Foundation we feel it’s vital to acknowledge that holidays are clearly some of the roughest terrain we can navigate following the loss of a loved one. The ways we handle them are as individual as we are. What is vitally important is that we be present for the loss in whatever form the holidays do or don’t take. With Christmas and Chanukah comes New Year, another potentially painful milestone which prompts reflection upon the past and plans for the future. Be gentle with yourself at this time, too.