For many people, Christmas is the most exciting time of year. Spirits are high and the shops are filled with tinsel and gifts. Even the radio is all but conquered by a throng of Christmas jingles. Unfortunately though, not all of us will be feeling quite so jubilant. Every year, around 650,000 people die in the UK, leaving behind millions of friends and loved ones who will be coping with bereavement (1, 2). For these individuals, Christmas can bring significant challenges at a time when others around them are gearing up for the festive season.
In this article we’ll be looking at some of the difficulties Christmas can bring to bereaved individuals, exploring some helpful coping strategies and advice for how others can best support a bereaved friend or family member at Christmas time. We’ll also have the opportunity to chat with some of the Family Support Team at Primrose Hospice to discover how they approach the festive season.
Emotions, Feelings and Christmas Spirit
There are often a lot of expectations around Christmas, particularly with sharing in the joy and spirit of the occasion. With the emotional rollercoaster that can come with bereavement, participating in such festivities can be incredibly daunting.
Bereavement can bring on a whole host of problems, such as anxiety and depression, and simply turning this off for the festive season is rarely an option. Instead, bereaved individuals can find themselves walking a tightrope of emotion, trying to balance what others expect of them with what they actually feel.
Jenni, Children’s Team Lead at Primrose Hospice (3) reflects; “feelings can be overwhelming – Christmas is a time to be around loved ones and it’s hard when the person you want to spend time with the most isn’t around. This may make you feel sad or angry and this is perfectly normal.”
One of the most important things to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to feel while bereaved and this is especially true at times like Christmas. Sometimes we need space, sometimes we need support, and all of this is okay when facing difficult circumstances.
Lisa, Family Support & Benefits Adviser at Primrose (4) mentions; “it’s difficult to prepare emotionally for how you think you’ll be, grief is very up and down, every minute of every day. There are so many elements of grief people don’t understand unless they are bereaved themselves.”
Although communicating how we feel is often difficult, reaching out when bereaved can be incredibly helpful. Especially at a time like Christmas, letting others around you know what’s going on and working through things together can aid in weathering the storms and building stronger bonds.
What about Coping Strategies?
We all stumble from time to time but being kind to ourselves is what’s vital. Christmas can be fraught with obstacles and expectations, from parties to gift shopping, so it’s important to step back and take things at your own pace.
Jenni repeats the mantra ‘be kind to yourself’ adding “plan things you enjoy doing and remember to take care of yourself. For example, chat with a friend or go for a walk, maybe to look at the Christmas lights.”
“Take time out from socialising when needed; take a nice bath, cook a nice meal, listen to music.”
“It’s also worth considering ways to remember that person and include them in your Christmas – a special bauble on the tree, carrying on a tradition they enjoyed, talking about them, listening to their favourite music or eating their favourite food.”
Lisa agrees saying; “self-care is important so don’t be afraid to say what you need. Spend time with family and friends but also be aware that socialising can be exhausting. Talking about your loved one to family and friends can also help.”
If things are particularly difficult, other strategies may include creating a personalised self-help guide to help you identify challenges and record the ways you worked through them. This can be useful in avoiding problems down the road or knowing what to do when you stumble.
As an alternative, “it can be good to write a grief journal when feelings become overwhelming. Not a diary as you may feel pressured to write something every day, but a journal will help process thoughts and feelings.” Lisa suggests.
If you’re supporting someone bereaved this Christmas, first off, good on you! Being there for someone is all important but it’s also important to remember to be empathetic and meet them on their terms. Bereavement can be a difficult balancing act between expectations and what we feel so allowing someone bereaved to be themselves is the best way of supporting them. Talking is key and try to make sure you’re asking what they need rather than telling them. If they don’t know, maybe they need some space or help to discover. Let them tell you. It’s also crucial to remember that everyone grieves in their own time. Bereavement can’t be rushed, and things will happen when and as they do.
Is Christmas Cancelled?
With so much going on, both within and around us while bereaved, events like Christmas can feel completely overwhelming. This may lead some to ask if Christmas should be cancelled. Is this normal?
“Yes, the feeling is definitely normal. There’s a lot of pressure around this time of year, especially for someone bereaved, it heightens their grief. Expectations of Christmas are different to reality, and it’s not just the emotion on the day but the build-up to it.” says Lisa.
Jenni adds “It’s completely normal and totally up to the individual what they chose to do. For some it’s a nice distraction – for others a painful reminder. Some like to have a completely different Christmas as the idea of their normal Christmas without that person can be too painful. Others seek comfort in the familiarity or honouring traditions that involved that person. Be kind to yourself and do what feels comfortable for you.”
Supporting Children at Christmas
Christmas is a special time of year for most people, none more so than children. For them, Christmas is meant to be magical, but this magic can be all but shattered with bereavement. There will be many parents around the UK this year puzzling over how to approach the festive season with their little ones.
Jenni advises; “when there are children involved, include them in making the plans. Whilst it is unlikely a child would want to cancel Christmas, they might be understanding of, or happy to have, a different Christmas to normal. Often children can be a welcome distraction but the way they grieve is usually different to an adult – they can jump in and out of their grief rather than being consumed by it. It is important to remember that it’s ok to have fun and enjoy Christmas as much as it’s ok if you don’t.”
If you or someone you know needs support, Primrose Hospice & Family Support Centre is here for you. Our Family Support Centre will re-open after Christmas on 2nd January at 9am. You can make a referral and find out more information here.
One of the hardest parts of bereavement at Christmas can be the limited support that is available. With GPs and other go-to support working limited hours, finding support when you need it can be extra challenging.
Here are a few suggestions provided by Jenni and Lisa to offer help when you need it:
- Samaritans – Phone: 116 123.
- GriefTalk Helpline – Phone: 0808 802 0111.
- Mind.org – Expanded list of useful contacts at Christmas.
- We’d also like to share with you a reflection that had been read at several of our Lights of Love events by Brian a client and supporter of Primrose Hospice. You can read the reflection here.
We hope this article has been both helpful and informative. If you’ve had difficulty with bereavement over the Christmas period and are happy to share what coping strategies helped you, let us know in the comments.
From all of us at Primrose Hospice & Family Support Centre, we wish you a peaceful Christmas season.
- BBC – Morning Live, Series 5: 04/12/2023, (timestamp – 17:40).
- Statista.com – Number of deaths in the United Kingdom from 1887 to 2021.
- Jenni Luke (Children’s Team Lead), Primrose Hospice. Pers. Comm.
- Lisa Watts (Family Support & Benefits Advisor), Primrose Hospice. Pers. Comm.
by Josh Davies
*Links in references may lead to external websites. Unless otherwise identified, Primrose Hospice is not affiliated with references provided.