Surviving the first Christmas without a loved one

For people who have experienced the loss of a loved one, Christmas can be a really challenging time. Psychologist Dr Sasha Lynn shares her story and offers some tips to help make this time a little easier.

My Grandmother passed away on Christmas Day. We were on a plane, making our way down to be with her when she passed. It is a memory I will carry with me forever. The first Christmas following her death brought up mixed emotions for many of our family, and even now, many years later, the day can still be difficult.

For many people, Christmas is a cherished time of year. It’s that time when families get to spend time together, relaxing and celebrating the year they’ve had. It can be filled with food, fun, and bad bon-bon jokes (wearing the dodgy paper hat is a must!).

But when you’ve lost someone, suddenly the whole feel of Christmas changes. The spark doesn’t burn as brightly as it once used to, and what was once fun may become fraught with sadness and pain. That time of the year to celebrate all things family now feels like it’s flaunting the loss you’ve suffered.

Often in the process of bereavement, there is no clear-cut path. Some days are great, while others are painful. Just when it feels like a corner has been turned, we’re thrown back five steps. Heightened times of vulnerability are birthdays, anniversaries, and times that were meaningful to the family. Christmas is high on the list of tough times. 

If you’ve lost a loved one and you’re facing your first Christmas without them, here are some tips that could help you cope:
Christmas Candle

Acknowledge the loss

In the short-term it can feel better to just push all that pain away. Pretend it’s not there. But by burying your feelings, or trying to ignore your grief, it can actually make things more painful in the long term. Sometimes the anticipation of special occasions can be harder than the day itself, just because we don’t know how we’re going to cope, or what the day will bring. So, by acknowledging your loss, acknowledging your grief, and allowing yourself to go gently into Christmas, it can sometimes ease the stress of the big day.

Honour them… if you can

Although your loved one may not physically be there on Christmas day, you can still make them a part of the day. A symbolic gesture like lighting a candle, or placing one of the person’s favourite items on the Christmas table, can help everyone feel like loved one is ‘there’ with you. Sharing memories, or toasting to them can be a lovely way to keep them involved. However, if you don’t feel you can cope with doing so, then don’t. Really it’s about what you can handle on the day, and you call the shots. It’s common to feel guilty if you have fun moments, or if you don’t think about the person who has passed as much as you believe that you should. You don’t have to feel guilty about anything. You are allowed to do, or not do, whatever you want. Grief and mourning can take many different pathways and we need to follow what is right for us.

Create new traditions

It’s not about pushing your loved one’s memory away, but sometimes new traditions arise from the loss. It could be visiting their grave, asking everyone to wear a certain colour, introducing a new Christmas board game, or serving up a new favourite dish. Sometimes this can be a way to bring some of that spark back into Christmas. It may be a different kind of spark, but still meaningful and nurturing to you and your family.

Stick to routines

That first Christmas without your loved one, you might want to just skip all the usual routines of the day. But keeping at least one core routine (i.e. get up, have breakfast, go for a walk, play with the dog) can be very helpful in coping with your grief and in putting one foot in front of the other. The actual celebration of Christmas might not be the same for you, but if you at least have a basic routine in place, and you know what’s coming up, it can help you emotionally survive the day.

Accept help

Many people fall into the habit of responding with, “No, I’ve got it,” when asked if we need a hand. But during this vulnerable period, take all the offers of help you can. It’s true what they say, “No (wo)man is an island”. Christmas can be a stressful time of the year at the best of times, the first Christmas since you lost your loved one can be even more so. Having others pitch in and help, or take things off your to-do list, can ease the burden for you. It can also allow you to take some time out to process what’s gone on.  

Christmas might never be the same when you’ve lost a loved one, but it can take on new forms and new meanings for you and your family. My Nan is never far away from my thoughts on Christmas Day, but I take comfort knowing she would love the celebrations that take place with the next generation of family. 
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