Factsheet 16: Coping with grief at Christmas time

For some, Christmas is not the time to be jolly. For some people, this Christmas will be filled with sad memories of someone close who is no longer here.

Facing your first Christmas without someone you love can be a very lonely and daunting time. There may be expectations that you will put up the Christmas tree, send out greeting cards, go out Christmas shopping and join family and friends for Christmas dinner... especially because others want to see you coping and moving on.

But when you’re grieving this can be really difficult. You may have no inclination or energy to ‘pretend’ that you are looking forward to Christmas when in truth you wish things were the way they were last year - when you were still together with your loved one.

On the other hand, some people want to handle Christmas time by doing things in the same way as always - not changing anything and keeping to the same routines and family rituals. Keeping to the familiar gives them comfort. Allow yourself to have fun. It doesn't mean you've forgotten the person or that your grief for them is over.

When you’re grieving, everyone handles their emotions and reactions differently. Here are three tips if you’re facing the dilemma of how to handle this Christmas:

  1. Give yourself permission not to do the things that you’re finding hard to do - writing Christmas cards, putting up the tree, going to Christmas parties - it’s alright to let these go this year or next, until you can cope with social events again.
  2. Make a point of remembering your loved one in a special way - light a candle for them on Christmas Day, place an ornament on the Christmas tree to symbolise them, buy a gift for a needy child or family in place of the gift you would have bought.
  3. Allow yourself to grieve - the days leading up to Christmas (and other significant days on the calendar) can heighten your grief. Seeing other couples and families together just hurts. Seeing the empty place at the Christmas table will be hard to bear. It’s alright to cry and let people know that it’s hard living without someone special. Try not to bottle up your feelings. Now’s the time to tell a close friend that you’re struggling to put on a happy face and that you'd appreciate their company or simply their listening ear for support.

And if you know someone who is grieving this Christmas, give them a call, write them a special card, invite them over for a quiet get together, speak up and acknowledge their loss, and have the courage to mention the name of their loved one … and let them know that you understand that it may be a hard time for them because it’s Christmas… and there are memory triggers everywhere of a missing face, an empty chair and silent thoughts of the way Christmas used to be.

Doris Zagdanski is a leading figure in modern day grief and loss education. Her seminars are included in vocational qualifications in Allied Health, Counselling and Funeral Directing.