Felicity Ward, Counsellor for Sue Ryder’s Online Bereavement Counselling service, gives her advice for people grieving at Christmas, the complex emotions which can arise during such a time of togetherness, and how their family and friends can provide support over the festive period.
If you have experienced a bereavement
Give yourself permission not to ‘do’ Christmas this year. If you are finding things difficult, you have the right to step away from the usual traditions and rituals until you feel ready to pick them up again.
Give yourself permission to do what you want to do. I’ve spoken to someone who decided that they were going to eat pizza for Christmas Day lunch and this relieved so much pressure from them on the day, which gave them space to just be however they needed to be.
Equally, it might feel right for you to celebrate Christmas as close to the ways you usually would. Listen to yourself, talk amongst your friends and families about their wants and wishes and see how you can all work together in a way that honours everyone.
“Give yourself permission to do what you want to do”
Consider in advance, some easy ‘festive activities’ that will create a pleasant distraction throughout the difficult days around Christmas. For example, a board game, a quiz or a walk to look at the lights.
The most important thing is that it’s okay to not be okay.
Tears are a good thing. As a society, we still have a long way to go to remove the stigma of crying. Crying is an important and necessary part of grief, and as much as you might fear that once you start crying you will never stop – you will, and you may even feel a little better for doing so.
Advice for friends and family over the festive period
If you know someone who has been bereaved, be guided by the grieving person. Give them space and invite them to open up about their feelings or to talk about the person who has died. However, if they indicate that they want to soldier on and just get through each day, then this should also be acknowledged and respected.
It’s good to try to remain aware that Christmas is not a joyful time for everyone. For some, this time of year will bring up a lot of hurt and hard feelings. Don’t try to ‘jolly’ your loved one along if they seem to be struggling. Remember they are doing the best they can and may need more support than usual – even if they don’t say so.
“It's good to try to remain aware that Christmas is not a joyful time for everyone. For some, this time of year will bring up a lot of hurt and hard feelings”
Talk about the person who has died, unless the grieving person has communicated they’re not ready to speak about them yet. Saying the name of the person who’s died is incredibly powerful and important. So many of the clients I speak with fear their loved one being forgotten and worry that those around them don’t think of them or care about them anymore, when in reality people are just trying to protect one another or finding it difficult to know what to say.
If possible, make efforts to contact grieving people and continue to invite them to talk or join in with social occasions, within government guidelines. Be aware that they may often turn down these invitations but will be grateful that you’ve asked and have thought of them and eventually they will start to feel able to join in again.
Be understanding, be patient
If you’ve invited someone who’s grieving to an event, make efforts to let them know that you understand if it seems too hard at the last minute and that it’s okay for them to cancel or if they’re only able to stay for a short time. Emphasise that you’d love to see them and they’re welcome, but only if it feels right for them.
It can help to offer giving someone who’s grieving a lift to places, even just to the shops. Sometimes, leaving the house can be the most difficult part of getting out and about and this can feel easier when accompanied by someone else.
Be patient. Grief takes time. I often hear from clients that they feel expected to have ‘gotten over’ their grief after a certain period of time (usually around 6 months to a year) and this is just not always realistic and can feel unfair. Whilst time can help us to feel less raw and give us experiences that help us to feel more engaged with life again, it can never take away how much we miss a person that was so important to us – particularly around special occasions such as Christmas.
“Whilst time can help us to feel less raw, it can never take away how much we miss a person that was so important to us”
If someone starts to cry around you, try not to tell them not to cry. Instead say that it’s okay to cry and that you are there for them. I always advise, when it feels right, to get some tissues and a glass of water as crying can lead to headaches.
Don’t assume that because someone seems that they are okay that this is the whole story or even the truth. If someone appears to be coping, this doesn’t mean that they don’t still need your support or help. Always ask.
“When someone you love has died, even the very best of times can have a tinge of sadness”
When someone you love has died, even the very best of times can have a tinge of sadness. Being aware of this can help prevent being too shocked by not feeling the ways you remember feeling at certain times such as Christmas. It is important to always be gentle with and kind to yourself. Imagine how you would speak to or treat a friend experiencing what you’re going through and be a good friend to yourself.
People may find they miss someone more during the festive time or they may find they’re more distracted from their grief due to the chaos and exhaustion of Christmas.
“No two people will feel or experience grief the same. It is important to remember that there is no wrong or right way to feel”
No two people will feel or experience grief the same. It is important to remember that there is no wrong or right way to feel and it can be difficult to prepare for how grief might affect you as it quite often catches us off guard. I often hear grief described as unpredictable, like ocean waves, sometimes it’s gentle and lapping and at other times it’s big and rough.
People might be surprised at what can suddenly become a trigger for their grief, such as noticing a certain dish missing from the dinner table that their loved one always contributed. Take a moment if you need to; take some breaths, maybe place your hand on your heart and acknowledge the hurt.
Whilst we may have been used to not seeing our loved ones at regularly intervals during lockdown, at Christmas it can be more apparent who is missing due to it being a time of getting together and being with one another.
If you are struggling with grief or know someone else who has lost a loved one, our Online Bereavement Community provides a space for you to share your personal experiences, get things off your chest, ask others questions and chat to people who understand.
Online bereavement support
Sue Ryder provide a range of online bereavement support, including free video counselling, an online community offering 24-hour peer to peer support plus advice and resources for people who are grieving or supporting someone through bereavement.
Online Bereavement Counsellor
For over 10 years, Felicity has been supporting people through the challenges that life and loss can bring. She is a qualified Humanistic Counsellor and registered member of the The British Association For Counselling And Psychotherapy.