Grief at Christmas


Frankly, December means very little to me this year. I don’t want to hear carols; I don’t want to go to a mall; I don’t want a tree; I don’t want to receive Christmas cards. I don’t want to celebrate. I want to hide and wait out this month.

A woman grieving the death of her husband wrote these words in her diary as the holiday season approached. The Christmas break is a festive time most people. However, for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one sometime during the past year it will be difficult terrain to navigate. On the one hand, there’s deep sadness; on the other, there’s celebration. It’s important to find ways to allow celebration and grief to coexist; so that “sorrow and mourning” will ease; so that, as the biblical sage Isaiah put it, “gladness and joy” can enter (Isaiah 35:10).

Following are a dozen tips for navigating the holiday season during the time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one—and there’s a bonus one at the end!

1. Plan as a family

Get together with the key people who will organise your Christmas get-together. Share your views on how to celebrate. Then work together to create a family gathering that will be meaningful for everyone. This might mean keeping traditions the same as in the past, but it might involve making some changes. One widower says that he and his family meeting produced a Plan A and a Plan B. “As the holiday went along,” he said, “they told me to feel free to move from Plan A if I didn’t feel comfortable. However, just knowing Plan B was in place seemed to be enough.”

2. Celebrate sensitively

In his book A Decembered Grief, Pastor Harold Ivan Smith offers this wisdom: “If the death was recent, or if you are still exhausted, you may find yourself going overboard to work up the seasonal spirit. In a culture that urges, ‘Spend! Spend! Spend!’ you may still be uncertain of your new financial realities. Still, you may be tempted to have a “make it up to them for all they’ve been through” season. . . . Celebrate sensitively.” This means paying attention to details: how much you’re spending, how much time is required for decorating, how many end-of-year events you really need to attend, how involved you wish to be in maintaining Christmas traditions.

3. Enlist help as needed

If shopping, writing and addressing cards, baking, cleaning or entertaining feel overwhelming, call for backup. You’ll find that most people really want to be helpful. They just need to know what to do. And when people ask how they can help you over the holidays, don’t hesitate to make suggestions. One widow said that reaching out “made the difference” for her Christmas celebrations. “My dear family members and good friends asked ‘how can I help?’ so I asked my nephew to type out and print off address labels for people I was sending cards to. I asked my daughter-in-law to bake biscuits for our huge family meal, and I asked a good friend to help me with gift wrapping while we enjoyed tea together.”

4. You aren’t alone

This may seem like cold comfort, but every year thousands of people are grieving a loss during the Christmas season. And in years past, many millions have grieved through the holidays and survived, even though they felt deeply the absence of their loved one. You aren’t the first or only person to go through the holidays feeling the anguish of loss. Just as others have managed to get through the Christmas break and recover from grief, so will you.

5. Connect with others

Late November through to early January may be an ideal time to participate in a bereavement support group. Doing so can be highly therapeutic, offering a variety of benefits:

  • receiving emotional support in a safe, nonjudgemental environment
  • experiencing understanding and guidance from others who are grieving
  • having the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about your loss
  • learning from others who are a little further along the grief journey
  • gaining permission to grieve as well as permission to move forward with your life
  • making new friends.

6. Seek solitude

The Christmas break can be a hectic, fast-paced time that makes many demands on life: cleaning, shopping, decorating, writing and mailing cards. It’s important to create some solitude—some downtime. Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Living With Loss, Healing With Hope, writes: “In times of stress, you need time to rest your body and your mind. You need time to be alone. Solitude is not loneliness. Loneliness is the pain of being alone. Solitude is satisfaction in being alive. Solitude offers a sense of peace, a oneness with the natural world around you, a spiritual wholeness.”

7. Tap into your spiritual side

If you’ve been active in a church, temple or synagogue, don’t hesitate to tap into all the available spiritual resources. These can include speaking with a spiritual leader, participating in services, singing in a choir, or meeting with a prayer group. One man, recently widowed, saw a flyer promoting a December retreat. “I forced myself to get out of my comfort zone and registered,” he said. “It was an amazing two hours that left me feeling renewed, calm, hopeful and peaceful. The spiritual retreat set a much more positive tone for my December.”

8. Pray like a psalm writer

Those who wrote the uplifting biblical psalms experienced life’s troubles and tragedies. When tough times arrived, the psalm writers composed lyrics of both anguish and hope. Follow their lead; consider these heartfelt psalm prayers:

  • “Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you. . . . Turn your ear to me” (Psalm 102:1, 2)
  • “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4)
  • How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? . . . How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? . . . But I trust in your unfailing love” (Psalm 13:1, 2, 5).

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9. Get outdoors every day

Nature heals. Many studies have demonstrated that simply being outside is soothing, calming and healing. Unfortunately it’s estimated that we now spend a mere 7 per cent of our time outside but an incredible 93 per cent inside, removed from the natural world. During the holiday season get outdoors for a minimum of 20 minutes a day. Even if summer temperatures are soaring, take a walk in the early morning or the evening when it’s cooler. Research reveals that a walk through a park is more than mere exercise; it rejuvenates mental, emotional and physical health. If you would enjoy having company, invite a friend to join you.

10. Rest often

Smith recommends that grievers take ample naps during the holiday season. “Tired, exhausted people complicate the holidays for others, if not also for themselves,” he writes. “A nap can be a wonderful gift to yourself. It is easy for some grievers, with long ‘to do’ lists, to say ‘Who has time to nap?’ The accurate response may be: you don’t have time not to nap. Do yourself—and the world—a big favour: take a nap.”

11. Pay attention to children and grandchildren

Rob Zucker, a grief counsellor and author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared, says that primary aged children “are very sensitive to the emotional realm.” However, they don’t have the maturity to put their feelings into words. They struggle to understand how a loss will affect their world. He cites the example of a six-year-old boy who, after his grandmother’s death, fearfully enquired, “Will we still have Christmas?”

For a parent or grandparent who’s also grieving, the uncomfortably direct questions young kids ask can be tough to handle. But Zucker says thoughtful, simple responses help kids make sense of the changes in their world.

12. Have an attitude of gratitude

It’s difficult to feel grateful when someone you love has died. Their absence is deeply felt during the holiday season. However, try shifting your focus from your pain to the many pleasures that remain: your own good health, your family and friends, good neighbours, a loving pet and so on.

In her book One Simple Change, health coach Winnie Abramson asks, “Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with your life and what you are lacking? If so, I want to encourage you to start practising gratitude.” Then she offers this wisdom: “Life isn’t always easy and bad things do happen, but it’s . . . a lot more pleasant—and fosters a truly healthy mental state—if you’ve got an attitude of gratitude. Practising gratitude can calm you down when you’re feeling anxious; it can also help you reverse negative thought patterns. Practising gratitude makes you more open to the possibility of positive experiences. . . . I really can’t recommend it enough.”

13. In loving memory

Finally, many bereaved women and men have discovered that there’s healing power in honouring their loved one by making a gift or donation in their memory. Libraries, schools, charities, health institutions, art museums, and sporting or religious organisations would all be grateful for a meaningful, generous gift or donation honouring your loved one.

Though the holidays are tough terrain for a griever to navigate, many have been able to forge a path that has led to holiday joy in spite of grief. Take courage and step out in confidence.     

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