Tackling the holidays when you’re grieving
"It's the most wonderful time of the year." But is it? The festive season can be full of challenges and for those facing Christmas after the death of a loved one, it can be especially hard.
We spoke to three young people who’ve been bereaved to find out what they’ve learnt about tackling the holidays when you’re grieving.
It’s not just the first Christmas that can be tough and people need to remember that.
During the summer break after her second year of uni, Beth’s mum died from a rare form of cancer. Five months later, she and her family faced their first Christmas without her mum.
A new ‘normal’
“Mum was so absent from that first Christmas that it was very painful,” Beth says. “But, at the same time, I have a very supportive family. My sister stepped up and helped my dad with the cooking – he’s not a natural chef! We tried to do things really similarly to how they’d always been. We got our Christmas jumpers on (even the dog!) and tried to make it a really special family event.”
During that first Christmas, Beth found herself alone in the house for a few hours whilst her family tended to their farm. “I suddenly was just overwhelmed with a feeling of ‘oh my gosh, she’s gone, she’s not just in another room,’” she explains. “Overall it was a positive day but there are definitely those moments where it hits you.”
The second Christmas without Mum
“People rally round a lot for the ‘firsts’ and then think you must be fine," Beth explains. "The second can be even harder – you realise it’s not a one off.” Seeking support, she struggled to find a safe space online to talk to other young people about their experiences of loss.
Sitting in bed on Christmas Eve realising she was dreading facing another Christmas Day without her mum, she began to write a blog post. The post led to the birth of Let’s Talk About Loss, an organisation that supports 18-35-year-olds through grief. "I found the process of writing so cathartic," says Beth. "The blog took off, lots of people got involved and it became the meet ups that we run now."
- It’s OK not to be loving it – it’s normal and acceptable if Christmas isn’t a completely wonderful time for you. There are lots of people experiencing challenging Christmases
- Christmas is only one day of the year – that day doesn’t have to be representative of everything. It’s a day that you will get through, that will pass really quickly
- Offer a respite – if you’re supporting a loved one who’s grieving during the holidays, offer a meet up that isn’t Christmas-related to give them a break from what can be a really overwhelming holiday.
If a guy isn’t talking about it, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to.
Liam volunteers as a meet up host for Let’s Talk About Loss and has written about his experiences on their website. His best friend, Matt, died of leukaemia in 2017 at the age of 25.
Liam has felt a strong sense of societal expectation to 'man up' when dealing with his grief. “Me and my guy mates have never spoken about it together. We only talk to the female group members," he comments. "I’ve felt embarrassed to bring it up. That’s part of the reason I wrote my blog post because I thought ‘enough is enough, something’s got to change.’”
Since then, Liam’s gone on to share more on social media about his experiences and hopes this'll open up more conversations for himself and others.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for Liam and his friendship group as Matt was diagnosed on Boxing Day. However, amongst the sadness, he says key dates can provide much-needed time to process what’s happened. “It’s a good thing to have to confront it,” he explains. “It’s important to feel sad and not feel bad about that. It’s an opportunity to reminisce, which is a beautiful thing and brings us closer as friends.”
'You can't prepare for it'
Knowing Matt was very ill, Liam feels he sometimes put too much pressure on himself to make lasting memories. Reflecting on that time, he says: "I think you have to take it as it comes, you really do. You can't prepare for it or expect to feel a certain way at a certain time or try to deal with something in the way you'd like to deal with it. Over time it becomes easier to take the bad with the good. Trying to live in the moment has worked well for me."
- Talk to someone – I know it’s better to talk and not bottle things up but I’ve still found it difficult to open up. It really does make a difference though
- Don’t feel pressured – it’s OK if you want to see friends but it’s also OK if you want to hide. Listen to your mind. Slow down and take note of how you’re feeling
- Reach out – if you have a friend who’s grieving and you’re not sure whether to reach out to them – do it – it lets them know you’re thinking of them. Don’t be afraid of saying or doing something but be understanding if they say they need their space.
People said to me: ‘it’s your grief – you do what you want to do.'
Honor is a youth ambassador for The Good Grief Trust. After several years of illness, her dad died when she was 15, just before her GCSE mocks. December that year marked the first celebration of both her birthday and Christmas without her dad.
“On that first Christmas, we tried to keep as many traditions as possible because, with Dad dying, we really craved that familiarity and that sense of routine,” Honor explains. The family have found ways to incorporate their dad into the day, like Honor’s mum signing their Christmas cards with a star that represents him. “He’s not absent, really,” she reflects. “He’s just there in another sense and a sense that’s taken a while to get used to.”
Growing up quickly
Along with processing her grief, Honor found herself worrying about the logistics of Christmas: “A big thing for me was, who’s going to buy Mum’s Christmas present?” she says. “That was something Dad sorted out. Suddenly that fell on me and I had do it for my brother as well, sorting out the gifts on both of our behalves. That’s something you don’t even think about before it happens.”
Seeing loved ones grieving
Honor describes processing her family’s grief as well as her own as one of the hardest parts of bereavement. “With people you love, you just want to help them and make it go away,” she says. “With death you can’t – you can’t fix it.”
For her, counselling played an important role. “I got counselling quite early on because it used to upset me so much to see my mum cry that it’d make me quite angry,” she explains. “I felt ‘I don’t know how to help you, please stop crying.’ I couldn’t say that to her so I went into therapy and that really helped me. The therapist reassured me that it was a normal thing to be feeling.”
- Allow space for missing your loved one – embrace them into Christmas Day, finding small ways to remember them
- Don’t do the big picture stuff – think about the there and then. Focus on the next few hours, not even the next few days
- Re-evaluate later – any time you’re struggling, think about how you’re feeling, capture it and then re-evaluate in a week’s time. Keep doing that – by the time the months pass, you’ll be in such a different place than you were in that moment.