Coping with grief at Christmas following the death of a loved one

Coping with grief at Christmas following the death of a loved one

Christmas can be an incredibly hard season for many of us. It is often a time when we particularly miss loved ones who have died, or really struggle if we have recently been bereaved.

Chaplain Dr Lynn Bassett shares some thoughts around why Christmas and the festive season can be a particularly difficult time, what we can do cope, and ways to remember our loved ones who have died.

For many of us Christmas can be the hardest season of all

The Christmas season is branded as being one of good cheer. Sometimes it seems that people are so keen to enter into the partying that Advent is bypassed altogether. In the commercial world it is no surprise to see Christmas cards and decorations in the shops from September onwards and many restaurants publishing their Christmas menus even earlier.

But not everyone looks forward to Christmas quite so eagerly. For people who live alone, Christmas can intensify their sense of isolation. For those who have little money, the pressure to spend and to borrow can be an added burden.

A hard time for those with loved ones who have died

For those who have lost loved ones, whether this year or many years ago, Christmas can be the hardest season of all; somehow the traditional expectation of families coming together for feasting and celebration only serves to highlight the enormity of the gap that the loss of a loved one leaves.

People who have suffered the death of someone dear to them will tell how, not only have they lost that person and all that they meant but in the process, they have lost a part of themselves as well.

When we lose a parent or partner or child, we cease to be the same son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother. This hole in our lives can be accentuated in the long, dark nights of the winter season and yet equally it can jar discordantly with the lights, bustle and jollity that accompanies Christmas.

How do we cope with grief at Christmas?

There is no prescription for coping, no magic formula; each person must find their own way through the barren land of grief. After the death of my father, my mother used to speak of hurdles: the first anniversary, the first meal out alone, the first visit back to a favourite spot and, of course, the first Christmas.

The first Christmas represents a massive hurdle filled with questions: Should I send cards? Should I celebrate or sit quietly at home? Where, if anywhere, do I want to be? My mum said that these hurdles had to be faced square on; there is no turning back, running away, trying to avoid or get around them. She said, they have to be faced and surmounted and then, perhaps next year, they will not be so bad. But that was just my mother’s way of coping; it may not be the experience of everyone or the right way for me or you.

Remembering loved ones who have died

A survey commissioned by The Art of Dying Well in 2018 found a variety of ways that people remembered their loved ones. They are listed in the table below. Some tap into our Christmas Day rituals at home, like raising a toast to the person who has died during the family meal; others are more symbolic, like tying a ribbon around the Christmas tree or laying flowers on the person’s grave; some are communal, because there is strength and
support in remembering together, like attending a ‘Light up a Life’ service at a local church or hospice.

Others can be done on your own, like lighting a candle or planting a tree; some are explicitly religious, like saying a prayer or having a Mass said for your loved one, and some involve doing something for someone else, perhaps in your loved one’s memory, like donating to charity or inviting someone else who is lonely to share some time together.

Keeping memories alive

Perhaps the one thing that is common to all these rituals and practices is that, at their heart, they are founded on keeping the memory of the person we love alive; unless you want to, there is no need, urgency or necessity to try to forget and move on.

Taking time to remember, to share stories and pass them on to the next generation is woven into the Judeo-Christian heritage of the western world and found in almost every religion and culture. It is possibly something we don’t pay enough attention to in the new social media age.

The real meaning of Christmas

Amidst the tinsel and carolling, people often speak of ‘the real meaning of Christmas’. In the Christmas story, tidings of comfort and joy may be found even in times of bereavement and grief. For the joy in the story of the first Christmas speaks to a much deeper and perhaps darker place within us.

The baby born in a manger arrived into a dark and unwelcoming world. His parents were far from home with no proper place to stay. Very soon he was to suffer persecution and exile. In little more than 30 years he would be condemned and crucified.

The light of hope

The real Christmas story is not the superficially happy tale of Santa, snow and holly. Rather, for Christians, it is the deepest source of joy, because it helps us to raise our eyes beyond the horizon of this troubled world and to see the light of hope beyond.

It reminds us that, because of that first Christmas when God became man, he is with us always; he is with us as much in our sorrow as in our joy and, once again this Christmas, he longs to offer us the comfort and consolation of his peace and his love.

Ways of remembering a loved one who has died at Christmas

  • Lay a spare place at the dinner table to represent those family members who have died.
  • Tie a yellow ribbon around the trunk of the Christmas tree.
  • Visit your loved one’s grave and leave a Christmas wreath.
  • Say a prayer.
  • During a Christmas meal, make a special toast to your loved one.
  • Invite someone who is lonely to spend Christmas with you.
  • Attend a ‘Light up a Life’ service organised by hospices at Christmas to remember the lives of loved ones.
  • Make a Christmas decoration featuring your loved one’s name or photo.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Donate food/time to a homeless shelter.
  • Light a candle.
  • Reminisce about your loved one with friends and family.
  • Take part in a run or work in support of your loved one’s favourite cause.
  • Have a Mass said for your loved one.
  • Donate to charity in your loved one’s name.
  • Release a balloon with your loved one’s name on it.

Read more about coping with losing a loved one in our section on bereavement.

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