Coping with grief at Christmas

Two leading Priory experts in mental health and bereavement counselling offer advice on getting through Christmas

Everyone experiences the pain of bereavement, and the struggle to reconcile the conflicting emotions that comes with it; sadness, anger, frustration and even exhaustion are all normal. Acutely distressing feelings may lessen and change as time passes, but there is little doubt that anniversaries, holidays and times of ‘enforced jollity’ can sharpen the pain of grief.  

Dr Andrew Iles, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, has expertise in seeing people who have been bereaved. He says; “Christmas, for many bereaved people, will always be the most difficult time of the year, and, sadly, often becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Although birthdays and anniversaries may be an agonising reminder of the loss of a loved one, the pain of missing a loved one at Christmas can be overwhelming.

“The unavoidable pressure at Christmas to be joyous and merry means that there is often no ‘escape’ for grief.  It can lead to feelings of intense loneliness and isolation.  For some people, bereavement leaves someone completely alone, but even for those who still have the support and love of friends and family, loneliness and isolation may endure.”

Dr Natasha Bijlani, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton agrees; “Coping with bereavement around Christmas can be especially tough as it is very hard to grieve during a season of public joviality and merriment. It is very different from grieving a private anniversary or birthday at another time of year as we are surrounded by festive lights and decorations everywhere, with cheery advertisements in the media, and Christmas songs blasting in shops and on the radio.

“To compound this, celebrations around this time of year seem to go on for many weeks and there seems to be no escape for those who would prefer to spend time in sombre reflection of their loved one.”

The Samaritans (the UK-wide charity providing a free listening service for anyone in need of someone to talk to, 24/7) regularly reports record levels of calls during December – around half a million across the month, peaking at over 10,000 on Christmas Day. Among the main issues raised by callers to the Samaritans on December 25 itself is bereavement.

Dr Bijlani says: “All of us experience bereavement in different ways and need to find what helps us best. For those bereaved who still have caring responsibilities, that choice can sometimes seem self-indulgent or unfeasible.

“The notion of ‘cancelling Christmas’ – however much you may want to – is often not an option. Many parents will instinctively feel obliged to celebrate Christmas as usual, but it can be very distressing trying to suppress your sadness.

“It might help to enlist the support of family or friends to help you manage your kids during this time. Kind and thoughtful people in your life are likely to offer help, and you should not feel guilty at all about accepting what they offer. Have age-appropriate conversations with your children about bereavement and enable them to cope with their individual loss as best you can, while dealing with your own feelings.”

To help navigate your way through Christmas, whether suffering from a recent or longer-term loss of a loved one, Dr Bijlani of Priory’s Roehampton Hospital suggests:

  • Plan your time. Decide what you want to do around the festive period and Christmas Day itself, and don’t feel coerced into celebrating with others if you really would prefer not to
  • Think about putting a Christmas tree up in honour and celebration of your loved one and in recognition of how you have taken steps to cope – even if they are small ones. Make it a tree full of memories to celebrate the role your loved one played in your life, and their presence in it
  • Perhaps light a candle in memory of a loved one or go through personal mementos or photos of joyful times if you feel able
  • Reach out and help others if you feel up to it. Helping others has the added benefit of making you feel better, as well as offering a powerful distraction, and sometimes some perspective
  • Where you can, avoid whatever aspects of Christmas you want to, whether it be shopping for presents, attending parties or even eating a Christmas meal. Don’t feel compelled to do anything you don’t feel like doing; those who know what you’ve been through should understand and accept your choices
  • Your grief will start to change. Don’t feel pressurised into making this one “a great Christmas” …there will be others. You may find it easier to avoid the festive period by travelling abroad if you are able to afford it, but this may leave you without your traditional support network
  • Express your emotions to those you feel able to share them with. People often feel inhibited about discussing emotions, but by choosing to broach the topic first, you might be surprised by the level of support and relief you feel
  • Limit your alcohol intake. Try to avoid drinking too much alcohol to numb your emotions as it is likely to make things worse. Alcohol can exaggerate some feelings and make you feel angry or aggressive. It can also make you feel more depressed.
  • If you do choose to participate in Christmas festivities, don’t feel guilty. Think about how your loved one would have wanted you to carry on with your life
  • Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help if you can’t cope with the overwhelming negative emotions of your bereavement. There is help available, including telephone support (such as via The Samaritans) as well as bereavement counselling which you can access via your GP, or privately at the Priory’s high street clinics or its hospitals. The NHS also suggests contacting a support organisation such as Cruse Bereavement Care, or calling them on 0808 808 1677
  • If you feel stuck or overwhelmed by your emotions, it may well be helpful to talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you cope with your feelings and find ways to get back on track. Bereavement counselling is advised if you are struggling to come to terms with your loss, especially if you believe the mental and emotional effects of a person’s death is affecting your ability to function during the day
  • Planning structure to your days can help you to cope over the Christmas period. Try not to limit yourself to just watching television, where you are more likely to encounter Christmas content, and try to include other activities, such as exercise and just taking walks. Getting outside is key for your mental health. Low-key events, such as a trip to the cinema with a trusted friend, can also provide a welcome ‘escape’
  • Being kind to yourself at Christmas is important. Whilst it may help to be around others, it is important not to overwhelm yourself with situations where you may feel obliged to be cheerful.  Try not to isolate yourself for the whole time but know that others will understand that you may not feel ready to do all that is traditionally expected of you.
  • If you are working, you may want to identify a private place in the office – maybe a room that is not always used - where you can retreat for a brief period if you are feeling overwhelmed.

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