Supporting a grieving loved one at Christmas

Christmas can be a vulnerable time for someone coping with grief and bereavement. Psychologist Dr. Sasha Lynn looks at how we can support loved ones going through grief during the festive season.

When you lose a loved one, Christmas can suddenly transform from a wonderful time filled with love, laughter, fun and food to sadness, grief and anger. You’re not sure how you should be acting, thinking, or feeling and the festive season feels anything but. Those same feelings arise when someone you care about is dealing with loss. Watching from the sidelines can make you feel helpless, as you struggle to find the best way to support them through the bereavement journey.  
Bereavement is the time following the loss of someone or something that impacts negatively on us. It’s normally associated with the death of someone or a pet, but it can also occur through other forms of loss; loss of a job, a home, health or a relationship. There’s a range of physical and emotional symptoms that a person goes through when they’re dealing with grief. From headaches, loss of appetite, aches, pains and exhaustion to sadness, anger, anxiety, denial and regret. There’s no time limit on bereavement, and there’s no straightforward path through grief. Some days may be bearable and others very dark.
Watching someone go through bereavement is heart-wrenching. You want to take their pain away but grief is such an individual journey, it’s hard to know what the ‘right thing’ to do is. Particularly during times such as Christmas, everything can change in an instant.
There’s no such thing as a hard and fast ‘right way’ to deal with your own grief or someone else’s. But there are some ideas we can look to in order to help those we care for when they’ve lost a loved one:
Bupa Blue Room couple talking and having coffee

Be open

It can be hard, but often the person grieving just wants you to be open with them. Talk about the loss, use names and places in conversation, ask how they are, be honest if you don’t know what to say. Dancing around the topic only serves to make you both feel awkward. 

‘How can I help?’

These words can be all a person needs to hear when they’ve lost a loved one. You don’t need to provide all the solutions; you don’t have to fix everything. Because, you can’t. They might not say anything right now, but they know you are there and you’ll help in any way you can.

Practical support

Grief can certainly throw all mundane tasks out the window. Cooking for Christmas, taking kids to appointments, picking up gifts, walking the family pet and mowing the lawn are just some of the ways you can show support in a practical manner. 

It’s not personal

During an emotionally charged event like Christmas, grief can take all kinds of twists and turns. Sometimes it all gets too much. The person who is grieving may lash out or become angry and aim those emotions toward you. Or they may just disappear to be by themselves. Understanding bereavement means understanding that emotions can sway and vulnerabilities are high during Christmas. Don’t let it push you away, just keep boundaries clear. 

Be there

Your loved one might tell you they’re fine or let you know they’re chugging along. They might really be ok but it’s so important to keep close by. You don’t need to hover around them but keep showing up. Make sure they know you’re there if they need you. 

Don’t stop after Christmas

While Christmas is a big deal, sometimes the grief can hit even harder when Christmas is over. When all the distractions and noise and busyness has stopped. Your loved one may need your support the most in the days following Christmas, to digest what the day meant, to grieve their loved one who is not there to share in the festivities, even to overcome feelings of guilt that can arise when they’ve had fun.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. The support you offer those who are grieving doesn’t follow a set pattern either. Just being there, lending an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on is a great start. If you’re worried about the person who is grieving, chatting to a trusted health care professional can be a great start to get them the help they need. 

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