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Coping with grief at Christmas

Close-up of a white heart shaped direction hanging on a Christmas tree

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Coping with grief at Christmas can be very painful if a loved one has died, even years after a bereavement. It can be especially difficult if the festive season was previously a time of joy shared with someone who is no longer there. It can also feel like there is a lot of pressure to suppress grief during Christmas from other people who do not understand your situation.

In this article 13 people who have lost a loved one, sometimes shortly before Christmas, explain how Christmas after the death of a loved one is like for them. You can find a lot of empathy, practice advice and hope for the future in it. If you are worried about coping with grief during Christmas, or concerned for someone else who is bereaved, you can contact a bereavement support organisation for counselling, group therapy, social events and other advice and resources. Many of these organisations have helplines and you can also call the Samaritans on 116 123 for free, confidential and non-judgemental listening.

Christmas has been a painful time of year for Jonathan, since his husband died.

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"Christmas was our favourite time of the year so the first one without him was awful. I would say that. It never gets easier and you never get over but time teaches you to learn to live with the pain.

There is no right or wrong and everyone has their own opinion but it’s your loss and only you know. So always do what feels right. Your other half knew you best and you could never disappoint them."

The first Christmas after her son died in a road accident was a blur for Maria.

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"I look back on that first Christmas and parts of it are stuck vividly in my mind. Other parts are a complete blur. The pain is visceral and all I wanted to do most of the time was to scream like a wild animal. Of course you can’t go around doing that so you fit your mask and try to comply. That is the hardest thing. The compliance. The expectation to do it all the same as before because that is the custom.

That first year was awful, the pain was palpable and my heart goes out to all those who are going through it this year. I did it though. I survived it and I learnt from it. The “learning” is, in my opinion, the most important part.

I coped. It was different, painful, exhausting and sad but I coped.

Allow yourself to lean into the grief, the missing and the longing for your child. Honour them and keep them close. We don’t need to pretend. Who are we pretending for?

The memories of Christmas past may sustain you in Christmas present. Let them come crashing in and allow yourself a smile remembering those happy times. We need them. One moment, one breath, one memory at a time."

Maria is UK chair of grief support network The Compassionate Friends, which supports parents who have lost a child. After Jamie’s dad died, Christmas was a quiet time for her family.

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"We took it a day at a time and had a quiet Christmas as a family. We tried not to have expectations of how we would feel and focused on remembering happy memories of the time we had together. Simple things are comforting - a walk in the fresh air, a cup of tea with friends.

It can still be difficult but now, instead of focusing on the past, we look to the future with hope. My daughter is one and although she never met her Grandad, we see him in her and talk to her about him. She helps us to remember all that is wonderful about the world.

Try to be kind to yourself. Make sure you look after yourself, eat, drink, shower and keep up a routine of normality. Remember that there is no set time or pattern to deal with grief and how you’re feeling. If one day you're feeling particularly bad then let it be and know that tomorrow you will feel better. While the pain of losing a loved one never goes away, you will learn how to cope over time."

Christmas is a very difficult time for Carl, whose wife died on Christmas Eve

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"My wife, Helen, died suddenly of myocardial infarction on December 24, 2014. Every Christmas Eve since then, without exception, has been exceedingly stressful. This is mainly because of the anniversary itself, but partly because of the idiocies of some of the people in my circle.

I tend to find that Christmas Day is so busy that I can get through it by kicking the can down the road. Advice? Surround yourself with people who will make it less difficult than it is already is."

Carl has found support through WAY Widowed and Young.

Debbie’s parents died within four months of each other, making the first Christmas very hard.

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"The first Christmas, I felt very lost and sad. Lots of memories of past Christmases. I knew it would be difficult, it was early days, so I planned as much as I could, conserved my energy, delegated and politely declined invites that I knew would require a happy face or be too stressful. I coped by accepting it wasn’t going to be the same.

Christmas has changed, so we created new traditions, varied where we ate lunch and who with. I try and create new happy memories and enjoy the moments.

I would say be really kind to yourself, ask for help, reduce the pressure to have a perfect day/week, every day is hard - this is just another day.

Surround yourself with those that care and love you, those you don’t have to put a brave face on for. Allow yourself those tears; it’s harder if you try to bottle the feelings.

I found that there is always joy, laughter and happiness in the saddest of times."

Debbie has been supported by Sue Ryder.

After Donna’s husband died by suicide, she tried to keep Christmas special for their children.

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"The first Christmas I kept busy, cooking etc and trying to keep things nice for the kids. I was still in shock. Sixteen months later and I am more positive. I can think about things without breaking down.

Words of advice: Feel what you need to feel. It is never as bad as you imagine it will be. Take time to grieve when you need to. Remember it’s ok not to be ok."

Susan and her teenage son focus on being ‘selfish’ to get through Christmas after her husband died.

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"Nik and I were married 18 years. He was 45 and I was 44 when he died very suddenly in July 2017. Christmas was always a special family time. We have one son, Jack, who was 14 when his dad died. Our first Christmas was very hard.

After talking to Jack, we decided we would have pizza instead of a roast – Nik would have found it funny. Our family is spread all over the country, some abroad, so it was – and will be – just me and my boy at Christmas...Yes, it will be pizza again this year.

I think the only way to get through it, is be selfish and do what is right for you and yours. I find writing Christmas cards especially hard, so just send what I have to. I bought a smaller tree last year and really no longer have the desire to decorate the house as I once did."

Christmas has completely changed for Matt and Joanna, whose twin baby boys died soon after they were born.

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"The first Christmas after we lost the boys, I remember that seeing other children playing and opening presents was one of the hardest things I had to sit through in my life. I felt like a spoilt child who did not get what they wanted from Father Christmas. I felt like I was spoiling everyone else’s Christmas by just being there. It was certainly the worst Christmas ever.

Child Bereavement UK has played a vital role in our bereavement journey and, without their support, we would certainly not be in the same place we are this Christmas.

Christmas has definitely completely changed for us since we lost the boys. The excitement of Christmas is much more toned down, it’s as if it’s just a normal holiday with some good quality family time. It will never be the same as it was before I know, but we are learning to cope with it in a different way now."

Matt and Joanna are supported by Child Bereavement UK.

Louise’s husband died after a three-year illness, just five weeks before Christmas, leaving her with two young children.

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"The first Christmas was awful as he had only died five weeks before and we had made plans for the four of us, which all had to be changed.

I didn’t want to be with others but I also knew that being on our own wouldn’t be good either. My kids and I decided the best of the bad options would be to stay home on our own for Christmas Day and have an 'open house’ for anyone who wanted to see us on Boxing Day (I made it clear that I wouldn't be providing food).

Christmas Day was a disaster – tears, arguments etc, but we knew that it wouldn’t be good and none of us really wanted Christmas to happen. Boxing Day was much better, and I realised it was better to be with others and it didn’t matter that I was upset, as everyone understood.

This year me and the kids are looking forward to Christmas even though we know it’s going to be hard. We are doing it differently to how we’ve celebrated Christmas in the past. We are making new memories rather than trying to recreate old ones. Therefore we're hosting Christmas this year and the three of us have our jobs for the day.

My advice to others? Don’t be afraid of protecting others from your grief, it’s okay to be sad, you may be surprised at some happy moments too."

Wynne lost her son Dan to pancreatic cancer and couldn't face Christmas without him at home.

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"Last year was our first Christmas without him and we decided to go away so we did not have to face Christmas in the UK. We spent it in Cape Town with other family members including my sister who had tragically lost her son three years earlier who was the same age as Dan.

We needed the closeness of family to help us survive and to support one another. Needless to say, we are dreading Christmas this year back in England, but have little choice. We have to keep putting one foot forward but the pain remains as deep as ever.

To all those who are suffering, I would say surround yourself with “good” people, lean on them and talk about your precious one who has gone. Take time to breathe and spend time outside in the countryside, walk, have your favourite food or little drink, appreciate your family and feel free to weep."

Christmas is a time for Aimée to find new ways to remember her partner with new traditions.

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"I lost Marky suddenly and unexpectedly on 4 January, 2015. I used to adore Christmas and have always found it to be so magical, so it really hurts since losing him.

The first year, I talked to my family about what I did and didn’t want to do beforehand and that helped a lot. It helps to discuss openly so there are no expectations and everyone knows how best to support each other. We agreed to not do a tree, for example, and keep it low key... but others may want to keep Christmas exactly the same. There is no right or wrong answer is the most important thing to remember.

Since the first low-key Christmas I have found it comforting to create new traditions and rituals. There is also no right or wrong for this... you may find comfort in doing old ones, not doing any of them or in creating new ones!

I create new ones and have also made a special bauble for him to put out at this time of year. It helps me to be able to do small decorations and have his presence marked with special things, whether it’s objects or special light services for example. Crisis at Christmas and soup kitchens are also an amazing way to give back to others suffering during this time.

Some other advice to keep in mind... If you’ve got work parties you have to go to, have an exit plan in mind and if possible, a friend who can leave with you or take a step out if you’re finding it hard.

Remember also that you can say no to attending if something is just too raw for you to handle at the moment. Be gentle on yourself and don't beat yourself up for stuff you're too delicate to handle at the moment. Do something nice just for you this season too!

Whether you want to hide away and not do Christmas at all, or whether you want to throw yourself into this season with gusto and celebrate life as your love can’t... do what feels right for you."

After her husband died of cancer Emma tried to keep busy at Christmas for the sake of her five children.

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"Simon and I were married for seven years but together for 10 years. We have five children together. The first Christmas I kept busy, but I have to admit I was still on auto pilot. I remember putting the tree up and sobbing for four hours straight because I was still in disbelief.

Two and a half years later it’s still hard, especially as the children tell me all the time that they miss Daddy, and because his birthday was December 20. But you have to push forward, especially if you have children."

You can find more help and advice in our guides to coping with bereavement.

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