Christmas this year will be different for many Australians. It’s usually a time of joy – a chance to come together with your loved ones and celebrate. But it can also be bittersweet for those who are coping with grief over the holidays, with an empty chair at the Christmas table.
This year has been exceptionally tough on a lot of people, as coronavirus restrictions prevented many of us from spending time with our families and friends. Consequently, it’s been especially difficult for those experiencing grief after the death of a loved one, without the comfort of their support network.
Coping with grief over the holidays will be difficult. You may secretly wish the so-called ‘festive season’ would pass you by this year – but that is not going to happen. However, with a little effort, Christmas can become a time of reflection, renewal and growth.
If you’re experiencing grief over the holidays, or supporting someone who is grieving, there are things you can do to get through the season. We’ve put together a 12 Days of Christmas guide to coping with grief, as a way of looking after yourself, creating new traditions and bringing your missed loved one into your new Christmas journey. We hope it provides some comfort to those who are missing a loved one this year.
Day 1, December 14: Let go of expectations
Recognise that Christmas will be a little different this year and commit that you are not going to worry about what you are expected to do, but concentrate on the things that are most important for yourself and your loved ones. Today, consciously think about this.
You may even want to make a ‘Have To’ list, for those things that mean the most. If you do, also make an ‘Optional’ list, for those things that you will do if you have time and feel up to it. Then make a ‘Let Go’ list, for those things that you will not do this year. Release expectations you have of yourself of the ‘ideal Christmas’.
Simplify. Be in the present, enjoy the moment and the people around you.
Day 2, December 15: Display a photo or a collection of photos
Include in your holiday decorations a special photo or group of photos of your loved one. Photos of them at Christmas time would be a special idea. Place the photos in a central place in your home. You may also use this time to pull out old photo albums and have them visible for yourself or others to look through over the Christmas season.
Day 3, December 16: A special ornament
Purchase a new ornament this year that reminds you of your loved one. This could be an ornament that you think is pretty, a photo ornament, or an ornament that symbolises something about your loved one. Place this on the tree or in a central place in your home.
If children are a part of your family, invite them to help you select the ornament or even encourage them to make the ornament themselves.
Day 4, December 17: Visit a special place
Today, visit or spend time in a place where you feel close to your loved one. Visit their grave or memorial place. Freshen it with new flowers or even a Christmas decoration. Or go to a place that holds special meaning.
Watch your loved one’s favourite Christmas movie or listen to their favourite Christmas music. Slow down, ignore the world for a moment and be present with yourself in a special place where you feel close to your loved one.
Day 5, December 18: Consider the challenges you face at Christmas
This is a tough one, but not ignoring the difficulties and facing them will enable you to get through the Christmas season a little easier.
Take some quiet time to consider the moments you’ll miss your loved one the most. Is there a special holiday tradition they were an integral part of? If you think of these special moments in private you’ll likely be better prepared for those moments when they happen.
Also think about how you will talk to and answer your friends and family when they ask “How are you going?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?” Thinking about how you will answer will prepare you for questions and will help you avoid having to just say, “I’m fine.”
This day is difficult, but by giving yourself time and space to think through the Christmas season will better prepare you for it.
Day 6, December 19: Create a Christmas memory box or stocking
Leave a box or stocking, slips of paper, and pens out in the house. Ask those who visit during the holidays to write down their favorite memories of loved ones. Ask them to put their slips in the box. You do the same. Then read them together on Christmas day.
Bringing good memories to mind helps replace the sadness caused by not having your loved one with you physically. Allow the happy memories to come, flood over you and do not allow sadness to drown out the memories. By doing this, eventually you will find yourself thinking about the good times more often than dwelling on your loss.
Day 7, December 20: Count your blessings
Christmas is a time of year that we naturally take stock of the many blessings we have in life. Although you are grieving, this year should be no different. Take time today to find joy in the things you are grateful for. You may even want to write a list of the things for which you are grateful. Or, in conversation with someone, express the blessings you have in life. Feeling happy does not mean you don’t miss your loved one. It is nothing to feel guilty about. It is likely that the person you miss would actually prefer you to be happy rather than spend Christmas in constant grief. So take a moment for gratitude and joy.
Day 8, December 21: Buy a gift
While doing your holiday shopping, buy a gift for your loved one whom you are missing. Find something that they would have liked or something that reflects their personality or interests. Then donate the gift to someone in need. You will be achieving two things through this gift: you will be continuing your relationship with your loved one as you think about them at Christmas, and you are giving to someone who will appreciate the gift.
Day 9, December 22: Give to others
Think of a way to brighten someone else’s Christmas. One of the best things you can do when approaching the holidays when you’re feeling so low is to reach out and help somebody else. No matter your situation, there are others who need help more. Find them, help them. Don’t sit at home and be unhappy. Get out in the world. You will find that by lifting someone else’s spirit you will definitely lift your own.
Day 10, December 23: Record Christmas memories
We all recognise that over time memories can fade. Also, your memories may not be known by your children or grandchildren. So, take a quiet moment today to sit down and let your memories flood over you.
Think about past Christmases: places you went, gifts given and received, traditions you shared, things you did. Then take the important step to write down these memories. Once written, you and others have them as a permanent record to read and reflect on for years to come.
Day 11, December 24: Accept that it’s OK to show emotion
Grief carries with it a lot of emotions and the Christmas season is also an emotional time of year. It’s OK to cry. Know that you will not ‘ruin’ Christmas if you cry.
Give other people permission to cry, also. Many times the best support you can give a crying person is just a hug and a few words and let them know it is OK to cry. Use other ways to show emotion, also. You can get a lot of support through a pat on the shoulder, holding hands or a hug. Be open to receiving and giving a hug today.
Day 12, December 25: Enjoy the day – Christmas Day
Make today your day. You are special. Even if you don’t feel like it, get up. Get dressed. Step outside into the sunshine and fresh air. Take a walk. Take a nap. Be around the people you want to spend time with. Light a memory candle and take some time for your thoughts to be with your loved one.
Allow yourself to grieve, but for every minute you spend in grief, equal that time with memories of Christmas with your loved one. Let this bring a smile to your face. Allow yourself to be happy today. Know that you’ll make it through and have moments of sadness, but also moments of joy. Tomorrow you will look back and say “that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be”.
Final thoughts about coping with grief over the Christmas holidays
We hope this 12 Days of Christmas Grief guide will help you to take time for self-care during the holiday season. Most importantly, remember to be kind to yourself and others through this journey. Grief is a process that teaches you how to live and love in a new way, holding onto the memories you have of the person you love.
Also remember that you’re not alone. If you’re struggling to cope after the loss of a loved one, you can reach out to friends or family, or consult your GP.
Our Grief Support webpage includes some excellent resources and videos about grief and bereavement, created by our bereavement expert Claire Hoffman.
Emotional support is also available from the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement on 1800 642 066. Or for more immediate help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Our list of grief counselling and support services across Australia includes more contacts that might help.