Dealing with grief and loss at Christmas time

Monday, December 12, 2011
Christmas loss
"Recognise you would usually have spent this time together, accept it's normal you're going to miss them, and take time to remember them."

With its emphasis on friends and family, Christmas can be particularly hard to handle if you've lost a loved one.

There's an empty place at the table, one person less on your present list, and the memories of Christmases past are likely to haunt you. So what can you do?

Forward thinking
"Plan," says Christopher Hall, director of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement ( "Don't wait until the day arrives to sort something out." Thinking about Christmas can be more painful than the event itself, but once you have a plan to focus on you're likely to dread it less and less.

Space to be sad
"Recognise you would usually have spent this time together, accept it's normal you're going to miss them, and take time to remember them," says Christopher. "Some people find it helps to do something they used to do with their loved one. Others write a letter to them. Many find it helps to share memories with others." If you need to cry or be alone, don't feel guilty. Set a time limit and know your feelings will change.

It's good to talk
"People often avoid mentioning a deceased loved one as they think it will upset others, but talking usually helps," says Christopher. "If you don't mention them, it's almost as if they never lived. Silencing your grief, or someone else's, can make things worse. Talk about the elephant in the room."

Laugh a little
It's okay to enjoy yourself, even if you're grieving. "You can still get some excitement out of the day," says Christopher. "If you're with friends and family, try to enjoy it. If you do, it's not a sign that you miss your loved one any less."

Note to self
"Grief is not just emotional, it's physical and affects your health and wellbeing," says Christopher. So look after yourself. "Doing something you enjoy communicates to yourself that you are taking care of you, and that's important." A walk on the beach, eating certain foods or doing something special can remind you of the joy of life.

Traditional ties
"This will differ between individuals, but it might be a good idea to do some of the things you usually do, and change others," says Christopher. "Perhaps your mum always cooked a family dinner. Now she's gone, a family dinner at a pub or restaurant might be the answer. You're keeping the tradition, but changing it slightly, which might make it easier to cope with the absence of your loved one." This doesn't mean you have to do this every year, but it could help in the short-term.

Acknowledge them
Just as it's good to talk about a deceased loved one, so it can help to actively include the memory of them in the day. "Perhaps you set a place for them at the table, or toast them with Champagne," says Christopher. "Grief ends a life, not a relationship. You can still talk to them, acknowledge them, keep their memory alive." Maybe there was something they always loved doing at Christmas, or somewhere they always wanted to go. Now might be the time to do it.

Related video: Try doing your Christmas shopping online.

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