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Christmas and New Year: tips on how to cope with grief

We can’t always know when the pain of grief and loss will come, but we do know that Christmas and New year can be an especially tricky time for those of us who have experienced a bereavement; the expectation to feel happy, festive, joyful and excited. This can feel worse when we are bombarded by adverts and images on social media of happy families in matching pyjamas. The difficulty of feeling both the happiness and excitement of the season, but also the sadness, grief and guilt at having some enjoyment in the festivities without your loved one. We hear some people say they feel nothing at all except numbness around this time of year. We know that we all experience grief in our own unique way, but also know there is a shared difficulty in coping with bereavement and loss during the festive season.

In this post, we will explore key aspects of grief and offer support and advice in how to cope at Christmas when you have experienced bereavement, of any kind, as we know there are many different unique experiences of loss.


 Beliefs about grief?

We often hear people feeling confused as to why their grief feels so big, when their loss was so long ago. Or people speak about wanting to ‘move on’ but the feeling of grief is so enormous they feel they can’t move forward and end up feeling stuck.

A useful way to understand your grief and your life, can be using Tonkins model of grief. The theory of ‘growing around grief’ suggests that the painful feelings remain present throughout our lives, but by ‘growing with our grief’ through new experiences, meeting others and the pursuit of new activities, we can feel joy, happiness and hope again. This concept can be a more helpful way of thinking about our lives after someone has died.  One that helps us see a meaningful future, whilst taking our loved one forward ‘with’ us.

Often, people believe that grief will become smaller and less painful over time. People may wait for a long time for this to happen, but find themselves stuck, and the grief feels as big and as powerful as it did at the beginning. This is because the magnitude and power of grief doesn’t change or ‘shrink’ over time, and if we stay waiting for this to happen, we will become stuck, waiting, and waiting for the grief to change before we can move forward with our lives. The expectation that grief will reduce over time, often leaves people confused and asking ‘why does this still feel so painful? Or ‘Why haven’t I been able to move forward from this pain yet?’ or ‘why aren’t I healed’ yet?

If you think of the image below, the first jar, we see is completely full of grief and loss, even over time the grief remains as large and as powerful. With nothing else in the jar, there is no room for anything else except the pain of grief. This can often make us feel trapped and stuck in our grief, with no ability to live our lives without this pain.

The second and third jars show us that though the grief remains the same size over time, there is more ‘life’ within the jar, which helps to ease the pain of living with grief. What we have lost is still there, within us, moving forwards with us, but there are other things within the jar that helps us to manage and move forward after loss.

Perhaps, instead, it can be useful to think about grief in a different way. If we accept the size and pain of our grief doesn’t change, but our lives around our grief can grow, this can help us look at grief in a more hopeful way.

Maybe it is time to start thinking about ways to fill your jar, taking your loved one with you and growing around your grief?

 The size of grief can be even more powerful around the festive season, it may be helpful to think about ways in which you can fill your jar, moving forward with loss, this Christmas and New year.

Filling your jar at Christmas Time

·        Creating New Traditions? There is no rule for how you should spend the festive season. Even if we see this on social media and the TV, you can create your own Christmas traditions, whatever feels right for you and your family. This may be eating Thai food instead of Christmas Dinner, it may be setting a place at the table or lighting a candle for your loved one, it may be going on holiday or doing something completely different to your usual traditions. It may even be that you want to continue with a particular family tradition you used to do with your loved one.

·        You may like to write to your loved one, or send them a Christmas card or a text message, and feel connected with them.

·        You might want to buy a plant, a tree decoration, a stuffed animal toy, (anything at all!) that symbolises your loved one, and bring this into Christmas with you.

·        You may want to reach out to friends and family and spend time with them this year, if you usually avoid and withdraw at Christmas.

·        Starting a new hobby – this could be reading, riding a bike, walking, dance classes, knitting, drawing, archery – a new activity, skill or hobby you can start will support you in filling your jar with new experiences, to move forward with your grief.

·        Connecting with others – this could be old friends, family or even completely new people. This can be a positive way to move forward with your grief.

·        Say your loved one’s name, talk about them with your friends and family

·        Take some time out for yourself, go to a quiet space, go for a walk – take the time to be still and quiet and think about your loved one

Other important things to remember at Christmas:

·        It is okay to feel grief, sadness, loss and disappointment over Christmas and New year

·        It is also okay to feel happiness and joy, at the same time as missing a loved one

·        It is okay and helpful to set boundaries with family and friends

·        Sticking to a routine and structure around this time of year can be really helpful – especially with the disruption of the holidays., Stick to your routine of walking the dog, going to the shops, having your morning coffee. Structure and routine can help us feel more secure and safe when the environment around us can be overwhelming.

·        If you have someone inf your life who has lost a loved one, don’t be afraid to talk about them and share their memory at Christmas (and don’t be afraid to talk about your loved one at Christmas)

·        Even though you may feel lonely and sad, isolating yourself or withdrawing yourself from others can make you feel worse. Reach out to those around you at your own pace, or reach out to a helpline organisation if you don’t feel you have people around who you can talk to.

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