It’s that time of year again, where excitement is building, and plans are being made for Christmas get-togethers and celebrations. It’s a wonderful time for many, with the opportunity to have a holiday and reconnect with family and friends.
But for those of us that have experienced the death of a precious loved one - a son or daughter, mum or dad, brother or sister, or someone very close and cherished - Christmas can be a challenging and exceptionally difficult time.
When faced with a constant barrage of collective joy and celebration, it can be especially hard to manage emotionally when someone precious is missing. It may be hard to put on a brave face and participate in parties and social gatherings. At this time, feelings of isolation, loneliness and loss can be exacerbated. Participating in these activities can make you feel very alone in your grief.
Lorna Wood, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist for Kenzie’s Gift says:
“Coping with grief at Christmas is particularly hard, as it’s different from other milestones, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Christmas is a public and collective celebration, with a focus on festivities, parties, present buying and giving. In the shops, on TV and radio there is music playing, songs being sung, shows and movies about happy family get- togethers with love all around. There is no escaping it.
“So, if you’re struggling with the death of a loved one this Christmas, know that you are not alone. It can be an emotionally challenging time for everyone in the family, and each of you will have different ways of grieving. With this in mind, it’s important to try and be sensitive to everyone’s needs.
“Before Christmas comes around, it helps to plan ahead and have a chat as a family about what you would like to do together and individually. Think about things that will be manageable, make time to reminisce. Think about achievable goals. Perhaps reduce your expectations about what the season will be like.
“For children, give them permission to look forward to and enjoy Christmas Day, and at the same time make space to remember that someone is missing, and that it’s natural to miss them.
“Christmas may always be hard, but there are some things that you can do to make it that little bit more bearable for you and your family. Sadness and happiness don’t cancel each other out and you can feel both. It’s ok to be sad and to enjoy different parts of the Christmas season. We’ve put together our 12 days of Christmas; a list of things you can try that will hopefully help you through the festive season.”
There’s no right or wrong way to do Christmas when living with grief. Anticipation can sometimes be harder than the actual day. First and foremost, look after you by attending to the basics: eat well, drink sensibly, exercise and rest.
Make plans as a family, but also give yourselves permission to change your minds, and most importantly, be gentle and kind to yourselves.
This may include deciding not to do Christmas this year, or giving yourselves permission not to do the things that feel too hard: writing cards, attending parties, putting up the tree, etc.
Do things your way and be guided by what feels right for your family. Give yourself permission to do this, and let people know this might happen.
“Thank you for the invitation. We do find Christmas hard, so if we’re finding it tough on Christmas Day, please don't be offended if I message to say we can’t come. If it’s too challenging for us, we might decide to spend the day alone as a family.”
If you need to cancel a Christmas or party invitation because it feels too hard that day, cancel it.
Talk as a family to understand how everyone is feeling.
Some families find it helpful to continue their established Christmas traditions. Others might choose to create something new that incorporates memories of their loved one, like making their favourite dish; making or buying a special decoration for the tree; framing treasured pictures of them; or incorporating their favourite Christmas activity, game, music or film into the day.
Children particularly like to have the person’s favourite lollies on special days.
An idea is to have a stocking where friends and family can put 'memories' of their loved one in. Have pens and paper available where you can encourage guests on the lead up to and on Christmas to write their memories, moments that made them think of/miss your loved one, or words of encouragement and appreciation to other family members which can be read on Christmas day.
Talk with those you’ll be spending Christmas with.
To avoid the ‘elephant in the room,’ it’s a good idea to let others know your thoughts, ideas and plans for the day. For example:
Do you want to include some time to do a tribute to your loved one, like:
· Sharing a special message.
· Sharing a memorial gift.
· Giving gifts of remembrance for your guests to take home.
Having a plan may help.
Create opportunities for children to experience joy and laughter during Christmas while remembering their loved one.
Children may find it hard to talk about their loved one and how they are feeling. Perhaps setting up a memorial corner, or tent, a quiet place they can go if they’d like, with photos, notepaper, pens, boxes, craft materials, etc., where they can write and post messages in a memory box.
You could also include some of their loved one’s favourite things (like lollies, photos, trinkets) so they can add to their memory boxes if they’d like. There is no expectations or pressure for them to use it, but the opportunity is there if they want to.
Mark the memory of the person that has died by doing something special.
This could be visiting a place that was special to them, lighting a candle, or creating a memorial photo album. It may be visiting their grave or the place where their ashes are scattered and placing a Christmas card or memorial candle there for them.
Request special messages for the Christmas tree.
Ask friends and family to write special messages to your loved one to hang on the Christmas tree.
You could also write a message to hang on the tree or a letter to your loved one.
As a family, on a trip to your favourite beach, or your loved one’s favourite beach, you could write a letter in the sand to them or make a beach memorial.
Buy a special gift at Christmas.
Buy a gift for yourself from the person who died or buy a present for someone in their memory.
You could also donate your time or money to honour the person who died.
If you’re hosting Christmas at your home, you could ask guests to share their Christmas memories of your loved one:
· What was the worst or best present they ever gave you?
· What’s the silliest / funniest thing you remember about them?
How about creating a memory tablecloth with guests, where each guest writes their favourite memory about your loved one on a tablecloth. All you need is a table cloth, sharpies and wonderful memories.
Rituals don’t have to be big, but it can help to do something as a family that everyone understands is a way of including the person who has died. For example:
· Taking flowers and dropping them into a stream or the sea close to home.
· Buying takeaway coffees and heading out to a favourite place.
· Donating a present to the City Mission that would be appreciated by a child the same age.
· Blow bubbles with young children - ‘blowing kisses to mummy…’
Make this your day. You are special. Do what you feel is right for you and your family. Be around people you want to spend time with. May be light a Christmas candle for your loved one and let their light shine.
We’re only limited by our imagination and creativity. There is no right or wrong.
If you need extra support this Christmas, please reach out to the Kenzie’s Gift team at: email@example.com