If you have lost someone special, especially in the past year, you might be questioning where the joy is this Christmas season, or how you can possibly have a “Happy Birthday”. That missing piece in your heart and your life can seem even larger on any special occasion. So what do you do?
Well, like anything to do with grief, it is individual, and the best advice we at Burstows can give is “be gentle with yourself”. To those supporting someone in mourning, listen to that person’s needs and don’t try to “jolly” them out of what are very real and valid feelings.
Keeping the Memory Alive
We know how important it is to healing to keep the memory of the person who has died alive and acknowledge the special role they played in our lives, so don’t (with the very best of intentions) avoid speaking about that person for fear of upsetting or “opening old wounds”.
Renowned grief counsellor Dr. Alan Wolfelt recommends “a good way to embrace your grief on these days is to make a point of honouring the person who died”, to “actively remember … through shared activities and memory-swapping”.
Reaching out to let someone who is grieving know you are thinking of them, acknowledging their loss and asking how they feel can make all the difference at what can be a lonely time. It can be particularly hard for someone to share how low they are feeling when society expects us all to be “merry and bright”. But it is equally important if you are grieving to feel safe in leaning on others for support and understanding, knowing that family and friends want to be there for you.
It may help for you to consider ahead of time what challenges you may face this festive season, or on other special occasions – what may be expected of you, and your preferences for these times. Remember that grief consumes a lot of energy. Allow yourself to trim down your commitments, as well as leaving space for your needs to change, and updating others so they can accommodate these, or just letting them know on the spot that you are having a tough moment or a tough day.
Allow Yourself to Be Sad
Regardless of the time of year, sadness, Don Burstow says, is entirely appropriate after the loss of a loved one. We shouldn’t be afraid of tears or “ruining the occasion” by expressing our feelings.
“The only way beyond grief is through it,” he said, and that is likely to involve tears, reflection, laughter, even anger, as well as gratitude for that person’s life. “Through embracing sadness comes the healing we need,” Don said.
Some people will not feel like putting up a Christmas tree, marking a special event, or perhaps participating in what have been long-held celebration traditions … That’s okay – take the grieving person’s lead as to what they need – embrace them in plans and be there for them to talk to if and when they need. Others will want to join in festivities as much as possible, and should not feel guilty about happiness or moments of joy: they do not mean you care any less for the person who has died.
In his book, Eight Critical Questions for Mourners, Dr Wolfelt says, “Humour is one of the most healing gifts of humanity. Laughter restores hope and assists you in surviving the pain of grief … Often, remembering the person who died and smiling and laughing is an honest reflection of aspects of what she or he brought to the dance of your life together. And I ask you, what could be better than that?”
Some people will begin new traditions – lighting a candle for the deceased, displaying their photo or a keepsake of theirs at the Christmas or birthday table so they are with you in some physical sense, sharing anecdotes about them, saying a prayer, doing something that person particularly liked to do, or perhaps planting a bush or tree in their honour.
Grief is a Journey
Remember there is no “right” answer, no one-size-fits-all, quick-fix or guaranteed approach … your grief journey to healing is your own.
Dr. Wolfelt says “Whether the death was sudden or anticipated, acknowledging the full reality of the loss may occur over weeks or months”. Grief does not have a timeline and healing is an ongoing and at times painful process, so don’t fall into the trap of expecting yourself or someone else to “get over it” and move on after a given period. With time and acceptance, you will find a new future without that person physically in your life.
To those grieving, and their family and friends, ongoing compassion, support and love will be the best gifts of all.