There’s nothing quite like the month of December to bring grief to the forefront of our minds and emotions as we lead into what is considered a celebratory time of year. However, for those who have lost a loved one, Christmas can be a tricky and deeply painful time.
Prior to the death of my husband, Christmas was about family, togetherness, and love, but Christmas is now different and forever changed. It’s often a stark reminder that a loved member of our family is no longer here and naturally it brings up a huge array of emotions.
I always feel nervous in December, never quite knowing what feelings Christmas will bring.
In year one I was so shocked by my husband’s sudden absence that I just went through the motions of it all, feeling completely numb.
Then I had a shocking year where I could barely participate, feeling absolute exhaustion, fatigue and anger, so I went to bed in the early afternoon and tried to sleep the rest of the day away waiting for it all to be over.
The last two years have been slightly kinder. I’ve felt sad, and had bursts of emotion, but have been able to feel a lot more joy as I watch my daughter open her presents, participate in the family togetherness and feel a little more like myself. But there’s still a gaping hole.
Each year I wonder if the coming Christmas will be the one where I don’t feel so much grief. However, as I cursed my way through putting up my own Christmas tree recently, I could feel some familiar feelings stirring. A pit-like feeling in my stomach and a nervous energy that wasn’t there before. I have that anticipatory feeling of what is to come in the lead up to Christmas and on the day.
Despite my nerves, I do feel like I’m getting better at understanding why Christmas can take such a big toll. It’s hard to watch displays of togetherness from other families when your own family is no longer the same. It’s difficult to endure the empty space at a table. It’s a painful reminder of all you have lost.
But I’m also learning more about how I can best support myself through this time and maybe some of these tips will help.
Set boundaries and simplify.
There’s something about Christmas that makes many of us feel like we have a list of things we ‘have’ to do. For some reason I always feel a need to have my home clean from top to bottom by Christmas Eve, despite the fact I don’t host Christmas day. Add to this, putting up a tree, writing Christmas cards, attending Christmas parties, photos with Santa, the list can go on. It’s alright to let these things go if you don’t feel up to it. It doesn’t matter if the house is a mess, or if the Santa photos don’t take place. Set boundaries on what you can and can’t do and simplify as much as possible. There’s a fair chance no one will ever receive a Christmas card from me ever again!
It’s okay to say ‘no’ to events.
Christmas is exhausting, especially for those grieving and It’s important to conserve your time and energy. If you’re not feeling up to a social get together or event (whether that is in the lead up or the day itself), it’s okay to say ‘no’ or to tentatively accept. Let people know it’s a hard time of year and it may not be a possibility that you can attend. A week out from Christmas I normally go into hibernation. It’s not to say I don’t do anything, but I clear my calendar of any unnecessary stress. If I turn up to social get-togethers, great, but I don’t put pressure on myself to.
Let go of expectations.
I presumed the first Christmas after my husband died would be the worst one, so naturally I set expectations that the second Christmas a joy-filled Jo would turn up to the celebration. It didn’t happen and I was disappointed in myself and felt like a grief failure. But I’ve since learned you need to let go of expectations of what this time of year will bring. While I’m hopeful each Christmas I will find joy, I can’t predict what it will bring, so instead I now let it go and tell myself, ‘what will be, will be’. There’s no right or wrong, some years will be tougher than others and that’s okay.
Give yourself space to grieve.
It’s important to allow yourself the space to grieve, you’re not superhuman. Grief can feel significantly heightened and it’s okay to cry and to feel like things are hard. Work out how you best allow yourself to grieve. Perhaps it’s writing in a journal all your thoughts and feelings, taking a walk in nature to give yourself space to think, talking to a trusted friend about the emotions you’re feeling or seeking support from a counsellor or Psychologist. Reach out to people if you need and give yourself space to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.
Honour your loved one.
Honouring your loved one over Christmas is a way to feel connected to them and feel like they have not been forgotten. My daughter and I purchase a Christmas decoration each year for my husband to put on the tree. It’s something that brings us joy as we select the decoration we think he’d love. But there are other ways you can honour your loved one too – light a candle, write them a letter, purchase them a present, share stories about them on Christmas day. Find a way to honour the person you are missing so much.
Be gentle on yourself grievers, I know how much energy it takes to front up to Christmas when the people you love are not present. Roll with the emotions, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and that’s okay.