Talking about grief at any time is difficult but it can seem all the worse in the run up to Christmas. The festive season often reminds us of people who are no longer with us. This is can be made all the more acute when, after the frenzy of preparing for the ‘big day’, the Christmas period itself can feel like life has slowed down. This can induce feelings of loss and sadness and missing those who are no longer with us. We may begin to worry about our sense of belonging and how we are going to cope without our loved one.

Memories remind the bereaved of the absence of the person they love. Each of us knows what we can handle; and we need to create the space ourselves to handle it. It is important not to ask too much of ourselves; we need to find ways to include the ones we have lost; to be able to talk about the deceased. At times like these, it is important to practice self-care. 

Loss is part of life from which none of us can escape. Around holiday time we often feel we need to ‘put on a happy face’; yet we probably find we feel, at times, unhappy. It’s okay to feel like this and it is nothing to be ashamed of – but we may still find we need a bit of extra help. It is also important to spend time with supportive loved ones – which need not be our family as not everyone is playing ‘happy families’ at Christmas.  We can go some way to reducing our stress and give ourselves a better chance if we get the supportive, loving care we deserve.

Yet grief can be unpredictable and has no set pattern.  Sure, it has some common elements, but how we grieve is unique to each one of us. 

Two clients with whom I have been working recently, demonstrate how grief in its different ways can affect us during the Christmas period.

The loss of a parent

Marcia is facing her first Christmas following the death of her Dad. She speaks about him as being ‘her best friend’ and has felt very much alone since his passing.  In therapy, she acknowledged she felt anxious about Christmas and wondered how she was going to cope.  Since she has been bereaved she had found visiting her Dad’s hard to do; and looking at his empty chair was distressing.  Ever since she could remember she would visit her Dad at 4.30pm on Christmas day. It was obvious that she would need to think about how she was going to spend this part of the Christmas break. We agreed it was important she gave some thought about how she would plan Christmas overall this year and what she would need to do to avoid feeling worse than she needed and feel better than she expected.     

It is helpful to reflect on our traditions – are they working for us or are we finding them no longer useful, and perhaps holding us back from moving on? Whatever Marcia decided to do, we agreed it would be helpful for her to talk about her loss by sharing her memories and stories about her Dad with family and friends.  And in doing so, remembering her loss would keep him with her.  Writing a letter to her Dad saying how much she missed him at this time of year and thanking him a for all the love he showed her may help.  Effectively, she is practising how she will cope with her feelings with the help of the therapeutic process – in a safe place.

Working in social care and by her own admission, it was clear that Marcia was the one who took care of everyone else both at work and at home. Once again, we noted it was important she was realistic about what she can do and not to expect too much of herself around this time.  Grief is a process not an end in itself.  It can feel exhausting.  It is quite normal for her to feel more tired than usual.  If she feels she needs help, then it was important to ask. This is not a sign of failure, it is part of being human. After all, she has sought out help for herself by coming for therapy. She may already be on the way to learning it is okay to say ‘I am not coping’.   

‘I need some help’ is a healthy acknowledgement that we cannot get through this on our own. And we do not have to. We do not have to pretend to be our usual selves, whatever that is; it is okay to let other people know we need space and we cannot be there for them just now.  We may feel we have just about enough headspace to keep going from one day to the next, from one hour to the next or from one minute to the next.  Do not be afraid to say you need to be there for yourself. And if someone asks if you need help, ask for it.  People often don’t know what to say or behave around the bereaved. We need to show them what help looks like.  Equally, we need to be prepared for an answer which says no; others can’t always deliver what we want.  

Because grief is ‘hidden’ and we carry it within us, it is tempting to become reclusive and stay in bed over the holiday season; a lot of evidence shows that exercise can stave off sadness or depression. It is good to get out for a walk, if only for 10 minutes. Then, it may be possible to go to the pictures or visit a friend. If we can stick to a plan, there may be a few glimmers of enjoyment during this painful season, some light in the darkness.

The loss of a child

Often memories return from losses which happened years ago. Sixteen years ago, Sarah lost a daughter, Elsie. She thought she had dealt with this loss, and in many ways she had. Yet upon reflection every year since the loss, Christmas had been a bit of a chore. And when we explored why she felt like this we discovered challenging life events – around loss and change - had brought back the loss of Elsie. Her feelings of sadness and disappointment had felt overwhelming and bewildering. 

We talked about how the loss of baby Elsie was particularly hard to bear as it did not seem the ‘natural way of things’ in terms of the life cycle. And she was a young mother herself when she suffered her loss. As we talked about how she had ‘weathered’ many storms since the passing of Elsie, she became aware that the loss of her daughter had helped her cope with the multiple changes she was now facing. Elsie had shown her the way.

Talking it through, she found she was able to deal with her feelings rather than wrap them up like Christmas gifts. This has allowed her feelings to be hidden and out of sight. Now she was ready to open up her ‘parcels’ and take a good look at how she felt about her life; and work on making sense of her loss in the context of the present.   

Sarah knew something had to change but she didn’t know what or how. She realised she needed to be kinder to herself. She did not need to stay in a job which she found stressful; it was okay to recognise she was not the perfect daughter; she did not have to feel guilty that her surviving daughter did not have a sibling. She also began to recognise she was not responsible for her partner’s grief which became particularly apparent around Christmas. Buying flowers, hearing Christmas music and going to the crematorium on Christmas Eve may be something she needed to change. Perhaps the annual Christmas trip to where Elsie’s ashes were scattered – which had become both lengthy and stressful -  needed to be reviewed.  She realised a lot of the Christmas holiday was taken up with her grief for Elsie. It may also have been preventing her from making the changes needed within herself and in her relationships with others.

During therapy, Sarah had found a support group for women who had had stillbirths (SANDS) which helped her feel less alone and offer support to others in a similar position. She was able to express her feelings in a safe place. She was finding a new identity and a new role for herself. Above all, Sarah had vowed she would no longer be the ‘domestic goddess’ when it came to Christmas. She would do it on her own terms and was determined no longer be a ‘people pleaser’. 

Above all, she was looking forward to this Christmas with ‘some excitement’.

Both Marcia and Sarah found they could face their overwhelming feelings of loss in the safety of counselling which can make grieving more manageable. They helped everyone else, now they needed help themselves. Sarah was able to embrace grief as a normal part of her life. She was relieved that her grief felt less intense and she did not need to feel guilty about feeling this way.  Yet she had also accepted that her sense of loss would not go away completely. She had found the strength to be ‘herself’ this Christmas, find her own space and move on with her life.  Sarah has found that she can give herself permission not ‘to do it all’ this Christmas and recognise the importance of planning for a festive season which will feel inevitably feel sad at times; but to find moments of happiness signalling a new beginning. Change and adjustment are required for the newly bereaved. 

Traditions, whether for the newly bereaved or those who have experienced a bereavement many years ago, cannot be set in stone. Grief demands new rules. Doing things to suit our current situation makes sense. Grief, in all its forms, can help us re-evaluate our lives, and by building bridges moment by moment enables us to link past and present to the future.

Lyn Reed is a verified therapist in Walsall

Further reading

Identifying unresolved grief

Why we need to talk more about grief

Living with the loss of a baby

7 ways to volunteer this Christmas

5 ways you can support someone who find Christmas difficult