How to cope with Christmas? Even the thought of it can be a nightmare when a loved one has died, and especially a partner, child or other person you were close to.
- Manage Your Expectations
Traditionally Christmas (and other holidays too) are times when people look forward to the comforting nature of a tradition, one that has been around for many years. But when a death happens, it disrupts this tradition – the sailing boat within which everyone was sailing loses a member, and the whole boat therefore becomes unbalanced, until those still in the boat find a new way of balancing it.
While this is happening, a transition is taking place. As you are going through a transition when Christmas is happening, then you may both want things to be just the same (which they can never be) and different (which you may find equally as difficult) – this is normal.
Thing is, expectations lead you to imagine that this is going to be the worst day you can imagine. The mind can go into overdrive as it fearfully creates pictures of what it will be like without your loved one. It thinks it knows just what will happen, and how you will feel, and it takes you off on a journey of pain and suffering, as you imagine the scenario that you think will happen.
Or maybe you’re feeling guilty – maybe you have regrets (which is normal) or maybe you are playing different ‘what if’ scenarios in your head e.g. What if I had taken a different road she would still be alive.
The trouble with expectations is you set yourself up to experience exactly what you are expecting. If you have already decided that it will be a difficult time (and that it ‘should’ be) then guess what? You are more likely to experience it as difficult. Feeling bad does not benefit anyone, least of all you. So when you notice you have the words ‘ought’ and ‘should’ in your vocabulary, change them to ‘could’ or ‘would like to’. At the very least this gives you an option. The truth is, you don’t know what it will be like.
No-one can possibly know in advance what they are going to be feeling in a certain moment, let alone a few days or weeks hence. The mind thinks it knows, but that is it just doing overtime in the fear-based fantasy department of your brain.
The actual truth is the day might be awful. It might be difficult. It might be okay. It might even be enjoyable. It might be a mixture of all these things.
If you are even having a hint of ‘it should be bad’ or ‘if I enjoy myself then I am betraying X’ or ‘out of respect for X I mustn’t have too good a time’, then this is also a time to be scrupulously honest with yourself. When you die, would you want those left behind to have a bad time out of respect for you? Would you want them to not enjoy themselves? You’d want them to be as happy as they can be.
Just because others tell you they had an awful day does not mean that you will, or that you ought to.
It is different for every person, and your ONLY job is to have it be the way YOU want. Be open to it being what it is. You may have a whole rollercoaster of emotions all in the one day and that’s ok.
Be open to it being good, awful, great, sad, poignant, cheerful – be open to the fact you could enjoy yourself at the same time as being sad that your loved one is not there. It IS possible. You can be happy and sad at the same time.
- Do things differently – Dare to do your Christmas differently.
Whether you like it or not, it is already going to be different, simply because your loved one is no longer here. So maximize on this, welcome the fact that it is already different. You can keep some of the traditions and let go of others. Invent new ones. Make big changes like going away with friends instead of going to family; or make small changes like having your Christmas meal at a different time, or eating a goose or a succulent piece of beef instead of a turkey. Even altering the routine of when presents are opened, or dressing differently, will help you cope better with what is already different.
- Welcome your loved one in
On your first Christmas after passing of your loved one you might invite an old friend of yours to come and stay with you. On the day itself you may treat it as another day, albeit special as you both will have some presents to open. It is crucial, though, to actively welcome the loved one in to be with you. It isn’t like you try to have them be there, as if they were in a body, but rather that you speak often about him/her, in an easy manner sharing happy memories. It can be sad, poignant and beautiful all at the same time. If you are sharing your day with other members of the family, set up a time to specifically welcome your loved one by sharing memories and celebrating their life. Let family members know in advance you will be doing this. Invite them to bring their memories and share them.
This is important because by doing this you create a space for your loved one, but you are also creating space for everyone else there too. Otherwise it can all too easily become a day that is dominated by the one thing everyone is not speaking of – the person who has died, and there have been many instances where, because of not wanting to mention that person, they effectively infiltrate and dampen the atmosphere, simply because everyone is afraid they will feel bad because they are not there.
You want your Christmas Day to be about the people who are there with you in the room, as well as those who aren’t. To do this, you need to make a conscious space for those who are no longer in their physical bodies.
- Take care of yourself
This might be thought of as sacrilegious at a time which is mostly associated with giving to others. But your giving will only be true giving if you are willing to give to yourself too. Otherwise it is easy for it to be tainted with resentment, duty, and other victim-like thoughts such as ‘no-one understands what it’s like for me without X’.
In the run-up to Christmas this may take the form of not shopping at all other than online; of going to different shops than usual; of not sending Christmas cards in the usual way (or not at all)
If you decide you do want to shop in the actual shops do it differently.
On the day itself, be as kind to yourself as you can be. That means taking time out to just nourish you – that could be in the form of a nap on your bed in the middle of the day; saying no to the traditional walk if you really feel like you’d rather be alone; writing a letter in your journal to your loved one; reaching out to a friend; having a special phone call; being with any children more than with adults.
Communicate what you are going to do in a clear, firm and loving way. Be willing to take care of yourself even if others don’t like it. If you don’t give to yourself first, you will not be able to give freely to others.
- Accept and reach out for help
This is where ‘putting on a brave face and pretending’ have to go out the window. Of course you don’t want to be a dampener on the day for others. That’s natural. But you don’t do that by pretending that you are okay and don’t need support from anyone else.
Bearing in mind that the only thing you probably want is your loved one back in the room with you, there are still things that others can give to you that will help you be present and more fully able to enjoy the day. When you don’t let others know your heart is breaking, or you need someone to do something practical for you, how are they ever going to know what is going on? People are not mind-readers. They cannot necessarily tell that underneath that cheerful façade you are screaming or sobbing inside.
So reach out – be brave – tell someone how you really feel in the moment. Let it out. Allow yourself to be fully held in someone else’s arms. Sob your heart out. Feel numb. Be whatever emotion is currently visiting for you, and you will at the very least have the benefit of knowing you are loving yourself by being authentic.
And when people offer help to you, accept it. Even if that is difficult, even if it’s not your style, again, do things differently and say yes.