November is the traditional month for remembering the dead, but Christmas surely is the time when we feel the death of loved ones most acutely.
The family gatherings and general mood of jollity can heighten our sense of desolation. That’s why The Art of Dying Well commissioned a survey to look at what people do at Christmas to remember family members and friends who have died.
Our findings support the idea that we are getting better at remembrance generally. Witness the many poignant and creative ways we found to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War.
But back to our survey and what works best at Christmas for families that have been bereaved. I consulted a number of experts with long experience in this area.
David Collingwood, Director of Funerals at Co-op Funeralcare agrees with our survey’s finding that the most comforting thing to do is to share memories of your loved one at Christmas. Mr Collingwood says his family will be doing this for his mother in law who died earlier this year.
He says: “She was a great quizzer so on Christmas Day we will sit down and do a quiz in her honour. We will celebrate her life. We shouldn’t try to suppress our sadness and our emotion, but embrace it.”
Another of his ideas is to attend one of the multi denominational services organised by funeral directors at Christmas time. These take place in funeral homes, churches, parks and gardens.
Most hospices also hold “Lights of Love” services at Christmas to provide a space to remember lost loved ones away from the festive atmosphere. Those who attend can light a candle or hang a message on a Christmas tree among individuals who are also grieving.
“One of the poignant things is the fact that you are in that shared space with other people who are making that same journey and who have faced that grief and loss,” says Tricia Wilcocks, head of education and research at the Ellenor Hospice at Gravesend in Kent.
Tricia says these services are popular with people of all faiths and none. She finds Christians prefer them to church services where the atmosphere is one of joy and celebration: “People then feel ‘I’m different because I’m feeling sad’. Music is very emotive and carols especially so. They can trigger our memories and heighten our sense of loss.”
But what about children? It’s common for families to try to shield them from the pain caused by a death but experts are united in saying this usually makes matters worse.
Tricia tells the story of a young mother whose family spent Christmas Day with her her in the hospice as she was dying. Father Christmas brought gifts, the children were able to speak to their mother, enjoy Christmas dinner with their family and show off their presents.
“Their mother died on Boxing Day but she had a really lovely day. The family came back the following year to Lights of Love and talked about their Christmas day at the hospice,” says Tricia.
Sister Elizabeth Farmer, a retired palliative care worker and religious sister of the Little Company of Mary, recalls helping two children aged 12 and 13 to get through their first Christmas without their grandfather. He had been an important figure in their lives and had looked after them while their parents went out to work.
Sister Elizabeth says the children made a Christmas memory box containing gifts they had exchanged with their grandfather and set a place for him at the dinner table. They chose and wrapped two presents to give to elderly people who didn’t have grandchildren with labels that read: “To Grandad from us.” On Boxing Day, Sister Elizabeth visited the children and they told her stories about their grandfather.
“It kept alive the importance of Grandad in their lives for another Christmas,” she says.
For children and adults, going out for a short while on Christmas Day can be helpful especially if the prospect of spending the whole day indoors feels overwhelming.
“Going out gives you some punctuation if you are worried your sadness might blight the day,” says Lynn Bassett from Hertfordshire who served as a Catholic chaplain for 14 years in hospitals and hospices.
Lynn suggests visiting a place associated with the person who’s died. Some people like to arrange an activity that symbolises letting go such as releasing a balloon, scattering petals on water or building a cairn on a hilltop.
But it can be difficult for families to agree what, if anything, they should do. Lynn says they sometimes asked her for advice.
“The first Christmas is always a big hurdle,” she says. “People would say ‘we don’t know how we’re going to approach this. Should we carry on as normal? Or not celebrate this year because it doesn’t seem right?’
Generally, she would advise families to do something: “When I was a chaplain in the hospice, people would come to the Christmas service and say ‘it was so hard to come, I thought I wouldn’t be able to. Now I have, it was really hard but I’m so glad I did.’ There is something very positive about symbolic and physical activities. People cry but there’s an ability to move on. It allows you a chance to remember, to think about it and that is healthy.”
“If we could allow ourselves to be more open to discussing death in general and sharing memories of people who’ve died even at Christmas it will probably be healing for everybody,” she say. “Healing comes through that pain. Suppressing it will mean it emerges in an unhealthy way somewhere else.”
You don’t have to be religious to understand that doing things in memory of loved ones is positive and healing. The rituals and symbols surrounding remembrance express love, gratitude, friendship and hope. What better time than Christmas to celebrate the most valuable gifts we have?