Joy Sackett Wood

Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Grief Transformation Coach & Author

Coping with grief at Christmas

Christmas can be a painful time whether it’s your first year without someone who has died, or you were bereaved long ago. I wanted to share my own experience of getting through a time that is associated with being with family and loved ones.

Losing a loved one is always hard, but the festive season can make it even tougher to be missing someone. The traditions that used to bring joy now act as a painful reminder of the person who is no longer here to share it with us.

When my son Jack died, suddenly and unexpectedly the day before his 40th birthday, it was the worst thing I could imagine happening in my life. I have an adult daughter, Jeneen, and a husband, John, a private therapy practice established in 2008, and an extended family with needs as well as my own to consider. It is true to say that being a professionally trained psychotherapist, counsellor and complementary therapist myself who has worked successfully with many clients experiencing grief helped me, but this did not diminish my raw and very real pain in the initial stages following his death.

There is no competition with pain. Pain is pain and grief is grief; there is no escaping it. It felt like a big hole had been carved out of my chest and stomach; the pain was physical. Fortunately, I was aware that there is, in counselling terms, a ‘grief process’, so I decided to surrender myself absolutely and go with the flow of that process. This proved particularly effective as I faced my first Christmas without my beloved son which was just two months after he had passed in the October.

Different people will choose to cope with grief at Christmas in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to do things: the important thing is that it is the right way to do things for you. Take some time, early on, to think about how you want to do Christmas and how this will or won’t affect those around you whether or not they are bereaved as well.

Some bereaved people find that they do not wish to celebrate Christmas at all, whilst some find that simply maintaining their routine and celebrating as normal is the best tribute, they can pay their loved one.

I decided I didn’t want to have a family Christmas day as this would be just too painful to endure. Instead, I went to our local pub for Christmas dinner with my husband John and was among strangers having a happy time. This way I felt part of the traditional celebrations but was still able to remain distant and self-contained in my grief. My family and friends understood. The next day, Boxing Day, I organised a family gathering for brunch, present giving and games. Allowing all family members to grieve in their own individual way. Although I couldn’t face the prospect of buying presents as I found it just too difficult to get into the spirit of things, I gifted vouchers instead. Again, this was understood. Everyone did their best to enjoy themselves as Jack would have wanted them to, although the sadness of his lack of presence was very much evident. Our favourite photo of him was placed in the dining and living room so we could feel him close to us.

I learned to make time within the hustle and bustle of Christmas to express my feelings of grief. It’s so important to feel able to talk about and cry for your lost loved one with people who will really listen without trying to ‘fix’ you.

Trying to keep to regular patterns of sleeping and eating is sometimes easier said than done but I discovered that it’s the small things that can make a difference. We can all drink more on festive occasions, but it’s important to remember that using alcohol to escape the pain of loss provides only very temporary relief.

Finally, I found it immensely helpful to find ways to celebrate and honour my son’s life. Every Christmas, we sing some of Jack’s favourite Christmas songs and or dance madly to some of his favourite festive tunes. His particular favourite was ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ by Slade! He would always shout, ‘It’s Christmas!’ at the top of his voice each time he heard it as if it were the very first time. Whenever I hear it now, it brings a smile to my face!

Making good, healthy decisions about how we grieve is our own choice, and knowing we have a choice in extremely challenging circumstances can be a liberating, empowering and settling experience.

Christmas won’t be the same again, but you can take positive steps to make sure your loved one is still very much part of it.