Christmas after a loss can be a truly difficult time of grief. The holiday season is 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 Christmas and the holidays, with an empty chair at the Christmas table.
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. Make a promise to yourself that you are not going to worry about what you are expected to do. Instead, concentrate on those things that are most important for yourself. Today, consciously think about this.
You may even want to make a "Must-do" list of things that are most important. Make an "Optional" list of things that you’d like done only if you have time and feel like it. Also make a "Let Go" list of things that you will consciously not do this year.
Simplify. Be in the present, enjoy 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 touch.
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. 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 allow them the opportunity 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. You might also like to 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.
Take some quiet time to consider the moments you’ll miss your loved one the most. 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 may be difficult, but 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 you during the holidays to write down their favourite memories of loved ones who are no longer with us, to be placed inside. You do the same. Then on Christmas day, you can read them together.
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. 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. Firstly, you will be continuing your relationship with your loved one as you think about them at Christmas. And secondly, 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. 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 fade. Also, your memories may not be known by your children or grandchildren.
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 these memories down.
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 an especially emotional time of year. It’s OK to cry and you will not ruin Christmas if you cry. Give other people permission to cry also.
Oftentimes, the best support you can give a crying person is a listening ear, a hug and a few words, and to let them know that it is OK to cry. But you can also use other ways to show emotion. You can get a lot of support through a pat on the shoulder or holding hands. Be open to receiving and giving a hug today.
Day 12, December 25: Enjoy Christmas Day.
Make today your day. Even if you don’t feel like it, get up. Get dressed. Step outside into the sunshine and fresh air. Take a walk. Be around the people you want to spend time with.
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 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.