How to cope with grief at Christmas
Last updated 21st November 2022
9 min read
Holidays can be a time of great struggle if you have lost a loved one, and few situations can be more difficult than dealing with grief at Christmas. The festive season is one with a heavy focus on family, and we understand how hard it can be to cope with grief during this time of the year – whether your loved one has passed recently or earlier in the year.
In this guide, we'll discuss ways you can try to deal with grief at Christmas, and how to acknowledge the emotions you may be experiencing. By finding ways to address your feelings in a healthy manner, you may find navigating grief at Christmas time a little easier.
Remembering loved ones at Christmas time
Christmas, and festive seasons of any kind, can be a difficult time for people who have lost loved ones. Holidays often centre around communities and families coming together to celebrate, meaning that grief can be especially hard to cope with during these periods. You may feel that something is missing, or that you can’t engage with the holiday as you once did.
This can continue for many years, especially if the relationship was with someone you were close to, such as a parent, sibling, or long-term partner. Grieving at Christmas can be a struggle no matter how long it has been since the loved one has passed; it does not need to be your first year without a loved one for you to grieve their loss and feel their absence.
Remembering loved ones during the holidays is completely normal, and finding ways to cope can help you along this journey of grief.
Ways to help cope with grief at Christmas
Grief is a complex process that everyone experiences at their own pace. Losing a loved one can cause many complex emotions, and different people struggle with different situations. Although your grief over the festive season won’t go away instantly, there are some methods to help you understand your grief and continue on your individual journey.
Pay no mind to expectations
During the holiday season, many people feel the weight of expectations to behave or feel a certain way, particularly as we find ourselves surrounded by others who are in high spirits. The nature of the festive period can often make people grieving a loved one feel the need to try and stay in tune with everyone around them.
If you are grieving a loved one at Christmas, it’s important that you let go of expectations that this Christmas will be, or should be, the same as previous festive periods. Losing a loved one is one of the most significant changes in our lives, and expecting things to be the same can create an unrealistic expectation that you might not be able to meet – which can in turn make you feel frustrated or disappointed, making the holiday season even more difficult.
It’s possible you may not be able to be as jolly as the people around you, host a large family gathering, and go to Christmas events as usual. This is normal. Consciously deciding to pay no mind to expectations will allow you to have more realistic expectations about what this Christmas will be like.
By being realistic, not only with what this Christmas will include, but also what you’re capable of doing, you can give yourself the space to navigate grief at Christmas on your own terms.
When dealing with grief at Christmas it’s important to have people that you can communicate your emotions to freely and in full confidence. Grief at any time will bring many complex emotions and the holiday period will likely have its own unique struggles. Speaking to a trusted friend or family member can help you avoid feeling lonely or isolated at a time when you may feel detached from the festivity.
It’s very possible that other friends or family could also be feeling many of the same emotions you are, or have experienced something similar in the past. By openly communicating, you may be able to take comfort in grieving together and remembering your loved one in a safe, understanding environment.
Communicating can also help you properly express your realistic expectations for the holidays, allowing people to know what they can expect from you and what you may need from them. This could be emotional support or simply understanding that you may not be able to enjoy the celebrations as much as you usually would. This can prevent potential misunderstandings and help you to navigate the holiday season without additional conflicts or emotional hardship.
Create new traditions
Losing a loved one could mean that some of your family traditions could be different at Christmas. For example, losing a family member may mean Christmas dinner must be held somewhere else. How the situation has changed will be different for everyone, but one way to deal with this part of grieving is by starting new traditions or even reigniting old ones. Some possible Christmas traditions you could begin are:
- Buying or making a special ornament to commemorate your lost loved one. This could be something unique that reminds you of them, or a normal ornament in their favourite colour.
- Having a small Christmas tree, holiday wreath, or tribute in the home. This can help you to feel that they are still with you and a part of the home during the holidays.
- Lighting a candle at certain times of the day to honour them and take some time to reflect on what they meant to you.
- Making a donation to a charity or volunteering for a cause that you know they cared about. Even if they’ve passed, their memory can still have a positive impact on the world they lived in.
- Decorating their headstone or resting place can give you time to grieve with them in a personal and private manner while still celebrating their memory during the holidays.
Planning ahead is an important part of dealing with grief at Christmas. The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year, and you will likely find yourself being asked to attend work parties, family gatherings, and visits to friends – all while you’re trying to manage your grief. Interacting with people requires energy even in normal circumstances, but if you are grieving then you may find it harder to cope with all the extra socialising.
As mentioned above, it is important that you be honest with yourself and others about what you can realistically accomplish. If you feel that you would be emotionally and mentally better off by not attending a gathering, it’s completely acceptable to say you just aren’t able to this year. Or if you feel some social interaction would help you feel better, it’s okay to leave early if you feel you need some space.
Your needs and boundaries are important to self-care. By having realistic expectations and planning ahead, you’ll set yourself up in the best possible way to cope with grief at Christmas time.
Honour your loved one
Losing a loved one can make you feel as though something is missing during the holidays. A way to handle this loss is by honouring your loved one and your bond with them. If you feel ready, there are many ways to do this during the holiday season:
- Make a small memorial to your loved one, decorating it with things that remind you of them or had significance in their life.
- Write something that expresses your feelings, such as a poem or a letter to the person you cared about.
- Make a recipe that they liked or made in life (maybe even something they taught you how to make), and share it with other people who remember them.
- Play a song or music that they loved and that reminds you of them
Limit your alcohol intake
Alcohol consumption tends to increase around the Christmas period, as many people will attend social gatherings or celebrate time off work. While alcohol consumption in moderation can help people enjoy the holidays, if you're grieving at Christmas then you may want to consider limiting your alcohol intake.
Alcohol is a depressant, and even moderate consumption of it can have an impact on people’s moods and emotions. For someone who is grieving at Christmas, significant alcohol consumption can make your feelings of grief and depression even worse, which in turn may make it harder to get through a difficult holiday period.
As such, plan ahead how much you're going to drink at specific occasions, or maybe even think about abstaining from alcohol completely until you feel better emotionally.
Take care and allow yourself to grieve
Giving yourself the time to grieve and properly process all of your emotions is a vital part of the healing process, no matter if it’s at Christmas or any other time of the year. Unaddressed grief can impact other areas of your life – such your relationships, career, and personal wellbeing – if you don’t give yourself the space to feel everything that you feel.
Everyone grieves in their own ways, meaning there is no right or wrong way. However, you must be conscious about how you’re grieving to make sure you’re not bottling everything up. Common grieving methods can be talking to people you trust, speaking to a counsellor, writing your feelings out, or expressing it through music. If you don’t feel comfortable doing any of these, then simply giving yourself some private time to let everything out can be incredibly cathartic.
There is no one way to grieve or a certain time you need to stop grieving. The most important thing is to give yourself the time you need to feel your emotions in a way that best helps you.
How to help someone who is grieving or lonely at Christmas
If you know someone who is struggling with grief at Christmas, then being able to support them in the way they need can have a positive impact on their emotional health. Ways to support someone grieving at Christmas can include:
- Making the effort to reach out to someone can let them know that you genuinely care about their wellbeing and want to help them.
- Listening to how they feel and validating their feelings, particularly if they are difficult or painful emotions.
- Don’t force them to be happy or feel a certain way, giving them the space to express how they are really feeling and be themselves in a safe environment.
- Practical help, such as getting them something they need or doing their grocery shopping, can remove some of their stress.
- Extend invitations to social events, with the understanding that they don’t have to go if they don’t want to, but that the offer is always there.
Helping people through your everyday actions can be an unexpected heroic act for someone who is grieving or lonely at Christmas, as demonstrated in the video below.
Helping someone who is grieving can be a difficult task if you aren't sure how. Our guide on supporting someone through grief can give you a larger overview on how to help in a considerate way.
Where to get specialist support
If you have struggled to cope with your grief during the festive season, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to deal with your emotions. In these instances, support from a qualified specialist can help you to understand what you're going through and find ways to deal with the unique struggles you are facing.
Organisations such as Cruse Bereavement Care and The Compassionate Friends can offer support to people struggling with bereavement. Our article on finding free bereavement support can also give you details on the ways you can get support.
Know things will get better
By remembering your loved one, finding ways to honour them, and taking the time you need to grieve, you’ll be far more able to navigate the journey of grief at Christmas. Although none of the tips in this guide will make your emotions go away, they will hopefully help you to understand your emotions more, become more comfortable expressing them, and set realistic expectations.
Losing someone is a big life change, and can be a shock unlike anything else. But your bond with your loved one will never disappear, and you will always carry their memory with you throughout the holidays. Whatever you feel and whatever situation you’re in, know that things will get better with time.
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