Managing grief during your first Christmas without a loved one

If you have lost someone close to you over the past year, your first Christmas without them is likely to be difficult. It's OK to struggle with grief when someone dies, especially at a time of year that involves gatherings. However, it's important you understand that you are not alone and know where to find support.

Why might grief be more difficult to manage over Christmas?

Christmas can make grief harder to manage, especially if someone has died recently. The festive season tends to be a time of coming together and being with family. For someone who has been bereaved, this period can feel very lonely.

Louise Bowen is a COVID-19 bereavement co-ordinator at Marie Curie. She says Christmas can cause fond memories of a loved one to surface, bringing about sadness and anxiety of doing things differently for the first time.

"The person who is grieving may have shared special memories and traditions over the festive period. Carrying out these activities without their loved one might feel strange and uncomfortable. Some of those who have been bereaved feel pressure to hide how they are feeling and to try to be joyful, which isn't easy. To make matters harder, over the festive period some helpline services can become sporadic, leaving those grieving without a support system."

What can you do in the lead-up to Christmas to prepare for your first year without someone?

Bowen says everyone has different ways of coping with grief. Some people will feel comfortable with certain things, while others will not.

However, the most important thing is to prepare for tough times like Christmas by opening up.

"Have conversations with your family and friends about how you are feeling. If you are finding it too hard to send Christmas cards without the name of your loved one included, let people know. You can also explore other options for Christmas Day. It's OK for things to be different if you normally host and don't feel like you can manage it this year."

She highlights that celebrations are likely to be busier than ever this year particularly, since we spent last Christmas in lockdown. But, if this feels overwhelming, you can plan what you would like to do in advance. Sometimes, having a structured plan in place so you know what to expect helps the event feel more manageable.

Bowen also points out that 'Christmas is not an endurance test.' It isn't a time when you should aim to go as long as possible without thinking about someone.

"If you want to acknowledge the person you have lost, then do. Looking at a picture or raising a glass to them, saying a few words silently or aloud, can be helpful. This can also provide comfort for others."

Some little tips from Marie Curie

  • Take a moment for yourself every now and then.
  • Practise slow, deep breathing.
  • Don't skip meals.
  • Don't push yourself to 'keep going' when you need some quiet time.
  • Take a nap if you need to.
  • Get some fresh air.
  • Go easy on the alcohol - it can be a mood depressant and disturb your sleep. 

What can friends and loved ones do to support someone grieving over Christmas? 

It can be difficult to know how to support someone who is grieving. Many of us fear saying the wrong thing and offending or upsetting them. We worry about getting in their way or becoming emotional in front of them ourselves.

However, Bowen has three words of advice for you when supporting a bereaved loved one: Don't avoid them.

"It's important to get in touch with them and check in, even if you just send a text message. Let them know you are thinking of them. As well as offering your own words of comfort, it's equally as important to be a good listener. They might be finding it hard to open up about something so raw and personal. They might also just want someone to vent to or recall memories of their special person. Don't try to talk over them or tell them how they should feel. Be patient with them. It may be difficult for them to ask for help at this time of year, so let them come to you when they are ready."

What coping strategies might help actually on or around Christmas Day?

Whether you have made prior arrangements or not, ultimately, what matters is doing what feels right for you on the day. If you would prefer to be alone or only see or speak to a small number of people, others will understand. Likewise, if you want to keep Christmas as traditional as possible so things feel more familiar, that is all right too.

There is not one way to grieve and you are not doing it 'wrong' if you have a different Christmas to what others might expect you to.

An important reminder

You are not alone. Despite the relentless Christmas adverts showing happy families with their perfect meals and exciting gifts, Christmas for many people this year will be different. There also doesn't need to be pressure to have a spectacular Christmas - it's fine if it's just another day you want to get through. Look after yourself and know that there is extra support if you need it. You don't need to struggle or just wait for the feelings to pass.

Where can you reach out to if you need professional support?

If you need some support, you can contact the Marie Curie information and support line on 0800 090 2309. It will remain open 10 am-4 pm on Christmas Eve and 10 am-2 pm on Christmas Day for anyone who needs a listening ear.

You can also make an appointment with your GP if you are struggling with grief. Cruse bereavement support also has a support line manned by volunteers all trained in bereavement counselling.

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