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Coping with Grief at Christmas

Christmas is a time for family, friends and loved ones. But for those who have lost someone special, it can be a very difficult and emotional time.

There's no shortage of reminders of what you are missing, and seeing everyone else enjoying themselves can be incredibly isolating. Despite the festivities, this can be a particularly hard time of the year when you're missing someone. Maybe you're bursting into tears when you least expect it, perhaps you feel angry at the people around you, or maybe you’re feeling anxious, worrying about how you’ll feel or how you’ll get through. Know that these feelings are all normal after losing a loved one. If you're grieving this holiday season, there are some tips below to help you cope.

Why is grief harder at Christmas?

There are a number of reasons why grief can be harder at Christmas.

First, there's the sheer amount of holiday cheer that can be overwhelming. Everywhere you look there is a reminder that it is a joyful and happy time of year, but it’s not for everyone.

Secondly, you might have fond memories of Christmas with your loved one, which can make it difficult to face it without them.

There is also the practical side of things. The cold weather and dark evenings make it difficult to get outside and do all of the things that are good for your mental health. If you suffer from seasonal depression, you may feel worse in the winter months, even without the addition of grief.

Here are some tips for coping with grief at Christmas:

Think about what you want to do

If you have been bereaved and are feeling worried about the Christmas period, it can be helpful to think about what your plans are for the weeks ahead and who you’d like to spend time with.

You shouldn't feel pressured to have Christmas as usual if it doesn't feel right, although celebrating as you normally would might be a comfort to you.

This will be different for each person after a bereavement, so plan for a Christmas you feel comfortable with and give yourself permission to do what you want to do.

If you are finding things difficult, you have the right to step away from the usual traditions and rituals until you feel ready to pick them up again.

Remember that all emotions, whether they are ones of sadness, joy or any other, take up energy. You might not know how you’ll be feeling from one day to the next, so be kind to yourself and try not to over-do things. Take a break and, if you’ve got a hectic couple of days ahead of you, schedule in some quiet time – whether that’s going for a walk if you need to, setting aside a few minutes to yourself with a cup of tea, or spending some time writing in a journal.

Don’t feel guilty about the things you think you ‘should’ be doing, and know that it’s okay to not be okay. Christmas can be a difficult time for anyone grieving and it can be tricky to escape with festive songs playing in every shop, cards coming in the post and re-runs of old favourites on TV.

Tears are an important and, for some, necessary part of grief. As much as you may fear that you won't stop crying once you start – you will, and you may even feel a little better for doing so.

Be open about your decisions

Once you’ve had a think about how you want to approach the holiday season, you may find it helpful to be open with those close to you.

Having conversations with friends and family about how you feel and what your plans are can help everyone support you in ways which are sensitive to your grief.

Acknowledge your feelings

It's OK to feel sad, angry or even numb during the holiday season. Grief can be very overwhelming, and you may not feel like getting into the festive spirit. Don't try to push your feelings away – acknowledge them and give yourself time to process them. If you feel better around other people, then seek out comfort and support in others. But if being around others makes your grief worse, don't be afraid to take a step back from the festivities.

Consider different ways of celebrating

Try planning in advance how you’ll celebrate. You may not feel the need to celebrate Christmas at all. Or you might find sticking to at least some of your normal Christmas traditions is the best way to support your family and pay tribute to the person who died. It’s important to do what’s right for you and try not to feel pressured into doing anything you’re not comfortable with. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating in the New Year or finding a new date that works for you.

Old and new traditions

For many people, Christmas comes hand in hand with a number of traditions that can be linked to memories of the person you are grieving. This can leave you feeling upset, especially when you aren’t able to do these traditions in the same way.

To help you get through this difficult time, consider the traditions and what they mean for you and those around you.

Maybe you want to keep to them, but don’t be afraid to change old ones or create new ones. Starting a new tradition may also help the children in your family, particularly if they’re struggling too. It can be difficult for them to know how to act when the people they love are grieving, but finding new ways to remember the person you lost during this time can bring you together as a family. Examples of this include:

  • Buying or making your own Christmas ornament or bauble to remember those who have died. If a photograph feels too much, then perhaps use a ribbon of their favourite colour or a sentimental object.

  • Bringing out the person’s stocking, or make one for them, so that you, your friends and family can fill it with cards, messages or letters. You can decide as a family whether you then would like to share these out-loud or keep them private.

  • Having a small Christmas tree or memory wreath set up somewhere within your home in honour of the person who has gone. You could decorate this tree or wreath with their favourite colours, photographs, any meaningful objects or messages.

  • Making a paper chain with a message or memory of the person you lost written on to each ‘link’.

  • Buying a big candle in honour of them and lighting it for periods of reflection and remembrance.

  • Making an object or cash donation to a charity you know the person you are grieving would have supported in their honour.

  • Setting a place at the dinner table for the person who is not there or making a toast to them at the Christmas meal.

  • Decorating their headstone or plaque on Christmas Day.

  • Representing the person who has died through an object or symbol in your annual family Christmas photograph, if that’s something you do.

Find ways to remember them

This can be as simple as ‘speaking’ to the person you have lost, silently or out loud, visiting their grave, or a place that was special to them. These things can be done alone or with friends or family. You may have photos or memories which you can share to bring you together.

Spend time with supportive people

Spend time with friends or family members who understand what you're going through. This can be people who knew the person you are missing or someone who is dealing with their own grief. There is strength in numbers when it comes to handling your grief. If you haven't already, you could try joining a grief support group. This will allow you to enjoy some of the festivities in a group that understands what you are going through.

Take care of yourself

This is a difficult time of year, so make sure you take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. Eat healthy meals, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol and drugs as they can worsen your grief. Taking care of your physical health is the best way to take care of your mental health. While the dark evenings and cold weather might make it more difficult to exercise regularly, try taking up a new sport like swimming or going to the gym.

It can be tempting to drink more during the festive period and it can feel like a drink may help numb the pain. But it’s important to remember that using alcohol or recreational drugs only provides temporary relief. If you find yourself drinking to cope, it might be time to seek help.

Try to maintain a routine.

The Christmas period may disrupt your normal routine, and this can make it harder to look after yourself. Keeping regular patterns of sleeping and eating where possible can make a difference. Seeing friends and family, or volunteering for the day, are all small things that can help.

Stay off social media

Social media can be a minefield during the holidays. Everyone is sharing happy photos and memories, which can be difficult to see when you're grieving. It's important to remember that people only share the positive aspects of their lives on social media, so don't compare your life to what you see online. If seeing all of the holiday cheer is too much, don't be afraid to switch off and take a break. This will also help you to avoid "memory" prompts on Facebook which can be very distressing.

Take a break from Christmas films and TV

It can be tough when you are surrounded by happy images of families celebrating. If it is getting too much, consider taking a break from the TV and getting some fresh air instead.

Accept that others may have different ways of grieving.

We know that people remember and grieve in different ways. Sometimes families can find it difficult when they have different ideas about how to grieve and this can lead to arguments. Try to be sensitive to others’ needs, and talk openly together about what will be best for you all.

Talk to someone

If you’re struggling to deal with grief over Christmas, you can call the Cruse Bereavement Helpline on 0808 808 1677. Or you can message a grief counsellor using the CruseChat service


Sally Edwards Counselling

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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