Is it normal to ‘dread Christmas’ after a death?

Absolutely. The ‘joy’ of Christmas is front and centre everywhere we look; shops, television, radio, social media, friends and family, our workplace and schools.  But for those bereaved, it can feel like a ‘slap’ with the reality of absence.  Christmas and other dates such as birthdays are relational events.   At these times in particular we might feel a strong sense of emptiness and perhaps resentment at others who get to enjoy Christmas without the overlay of loss.   There can been a great deal of anxiety leading up to Christmas and many bereaved have actually suggested that the lead up to Christmas is worse than the actual day.    On the contrary, if your conscious choice is to allow yourself to feel joy at Christmas this is absolutely fine too.  Everyone needs ‘time out’ from grief and Christmas with family and friends, might provide small moments of ‘respite’ from the intensity and persistence of grief.  It is not uncommon for feelings of joy or happiness to be accompanied with guilt.  If you listen closely, guilt often speaks of ‘love’ and caring;  ‘there is nothing I would not have done to change the outcome….to have my person here now’.  But all too often guilt places judgement, it catastrophizes and has nothing helpful to offer at this time.   Write a Christmas card to ‘guilt’, inviting it to take a break too, and wish it on its merry way.

The time leading up to Christmas and the actual day can be loaded with mixed emotions and thoughts, changing our behaviours, leaving us to feel ‘we are not ourselves’.  This is to be expected and is reasonable.   Don’t beat yourself up……take a deep breath……ride the wave.  These moments pass……it might come again, but it too will pass so ride it through….without judgement and frustration.

What are some things we can do to help us get through Christmas?

 Start the conversation: Your friends and family might not know how you want to tackle Christmas….and for that matter you may not know what you need either.  But it is not helpful when each person is thinking about the same thing and making assumptions but not speaking.  Together, you can devise a plan or at least an understanding about how the day might look including worries and concerns (this might include worry about your own grief reactions on the day).   You might start this conversation with one close family member/friend and then ask the support of this person to further discuss with others.

Find a way to include the deceased in Christmas activities:  If it feels comforting to in some way include the memory of the deceased in Christmas celebrations then perhaps consider how this might look for you.  This could be done by incorporating an old Christmas tradition or ritual that speaks of the character and personality of the deceased or you might create a new one ie. including their favourite drink or dish into the day, each person writes down a favourite memory placing it in a bowl to be shared as a family/group at a time during the day, each person writes a message to the deceased in the one Christmas card and placed on the Christmas table or other place of significance.  Use your imagination and be creative because there is no wrong, right or ‘silly’ idea.  And it doesn’t have to be all serious; inject some laughter if this is congruent with the character of the person who died.

Listen to what you need:  All too often, we get drawn into doing things at this time because others think it the ‘best’ thing for us, or we do not wish to offend, or we do not know what else to do so we go with the flow.  This might work for you but if to do this causes dread and anxiety, then perhaps it is not going to be helpful and you may look back regretting that you did not speak up.  Be your own best friend and listen to what it is that you need on this day. Each person’s needs will be different.   Some prefer to be alone and some prefer to be with family and/or friends.  Permit yourself to be guided by what feels right for you and be careful about being pressured by others.  If you decide to go with someone else’s schedule, at least mention to  one person that there may be times throughout the day, where you just need to slip away and have a moment to yourself – this is giving yourself permission to take some space.

Expecting the unexpected and being ‘okay’ with this:  Christmas can evoke a range of emotions that may vary in intensity.  And often we can not predict the triggers. Going into the day with an awareness of this possibility, can enable us to be more accepting of whatever the day presents.   Breath…………….

What can friends and family do to assist at this time?  It can be helpful for friends/family to acknowledge and validate how difficult this time might be; to address the elephant in the room.  It is helpful to avoid imposing expectations or own experiences onto others; we all grieve uniquely.  Family/friends can ask the bereaved what is important for them on the day, then discuss and devise support strategies (time out from the day, leave lunch early, stay over the night).  Avoid assumptions about what is needed – ask!