Coping with Christmas after the death of a loved one is always very painful. Pain is often made worse because everybody else appears to be happy at this time of year.
While Christmas will be painful, there are a few things that can make the process a little easier.
It is important to recognise that sadness will come and go throughout the festive period. This is inevitable, grieving is the price we pay for love. You can and will get through it.
These practical steps for coping with Christmas after bereavement may help.
1) Plan for Christmas day: get out pen and paper or the iPad, and jot down things you might like to do if you were not feeling quite as sad
List simple things. Maybe you always wanted to drink Bucks Fizz in bed, but never could because your partner was teetotal, or perhaps you always wanted to walk in the country on Christmas morning rather than go to church. Now is the time to please yourself – don’t feel guilty, just do it.
In making new memories and new habits, you are building a future for yourself in small but tangible ways. And don’t forget to include the quiet time between Christmas and New Year, which many people can find difficult. Think about what you’ve always wanted to use that time for.
2) Anticipate the parts of the actual day when you are likely to feel worse
Once you can recognise where the major deep pits lie, you will be able to draw up a plan to be doing other activities at those especially vulnerable times. If you recognise that your dip in mood occurs after lunch, why not go for a walk, have a sleep or try and master a hobby?
Don’t be afraid to rip up the rule book to get through Christmas. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean they have to remain that way forever. If a particular tradition or ritual feels too upsetting to revive this year, attempt a new one. Swap the Queen’s Speech for a card game, or the post-lunch walk for a Boxing Day morning walk instead.
3) Create a ritual that honours the past but sows the seeds of hope for the future
Perhaps that might be to gather winter foliage from the country to make a seasonal wreath and then laying it at your partners resting place. Afterwards, why not meet up with a son, daughter or grandchild to do something different together? Have some mulled wine, treat them to a meal, watch them ice skate, have a flutter on the horses.
It is not important what the activity is – the importance is found in developing new rituals. Why not create a ritual you can carry out and extend every year forward?
4) Buy yourself a present
Wrap it nicely and pamper yourself, whatever the budget. Don’t pick something practical with little personal meaning, such as a new iron.
Choose something you have always wanted but never dared to buy. If you can’t afford to be extravagant, buy something that works towards your dream – a Theatre Token, to help save for a theatre trip, or a pair of walking boots, to prepare for an exotic walking holiday at some point in the future. Open your present on Christmas Day, and immerse yourself in it.
5) Make an emergency ration pack
An emergency ration pack is a small parcel made up of items that will lift your spirit even in your darkest moments. The idea is that you take time to select items that comfort or cheer you. When sadness hits, you won’t feel like seeking out things that raise your mood, so be prepared, and have the ration pack ready before you need it.
A typical ration pack might include chocolate, bath oils, a favourite DVD, a magazine, notebook, a novel and a painting set. The items don’t have to be expensive or wildly exciting, but they keep you occupied in difficult times.
6) Accept invitations
You may not want to go out, and that’s fine, but try and be gracious. Accept the odd invitation, as it will help you realise that life goes on. When you’re struggling, set a time limit: tell yourself you’ll go to Christmas drinks for an hour, and then see how you feel. Could you stay half an hour longer? Don’t forget to enlist friends and family to help, too.
Socialising does not mean you have stopped grieving or have forgotten your partner. It does mean that you are courageously choosing to walk on for yourself while honouring your past life.
7) Count your blessings
Remember, you are lucky to be here: you have your health, and the ability to choose to move forward. You are able to feel your pain, but this in itself means you will also feel joy again. Many are not so lucky.
You may find it helpful to talk to other people who have recently lost a loved one. Track down a support group near you, or consult bereavement charities, to find a network of like-minded people who may be further along in their journey with grief, and can remind you of the happier times to come.
8) Be kind to yourself: use mindfulness
Don’t be harsh on yourself when you feel sad. Feelings of sadness will pass. Feeling broken and like life has ended is part of the grieving process. Allow yourself to experience your emotions without dulling them with excessive alcohol or drug use.
If you are unable to take any of these steps and are thinking that you can’t go on, it is essential that you seek help. Counselling or psychotherapy may help you to adjust to your situation. It may also allow you to recognise that, despite your current feelings of sadness, you do have the chance of a positive future ahead of you.
If things become too much before you have arranged psychotherapy, dial 111 (for NHS help in a non-emergency), 999 (in an emergency) or talk to the Samaritans, night or day, including over the Christmas period, on 116 123.
Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).