Bereavement at Christmas


The death of a loved one hurts. It feels like a physical blow to the body, leaving a gaping hole in your soul – and nothing can fill it. Physically you can’t eat or over eat for comfort, can’t sleep, have a tightness in your chest or throat, and feel weak and tired. Emotionally you can feel shocked, numb, sadness, despair or anger. You may experience feelings of anxiety or depression. The feelings are intense and can be felt at anytime regardless of how long ago the loss was experienced. This makes coping with grief at Christmas immensely painful. The pressure for it to be ‘nice’ for everyone while you are barely holding on is palpable.

First Christmas

The first of all important dates feels crippling, birthdays, festive celebrations and the anniversary of the death. Then the expectation is that ‘with time’ you will begin to ‘feel better’. But how long is this? and why don’t you feel better? Sometimes I feel this type of explanation is just another stick to beat yourself with, a judgement that you ‘should’ be better by now. But coping with grief is not like that. Its not linear that grief becomes acceptable over time. It is messy and emotional and jumps backwards and forwards between Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Ball in the box

Another way to understand grief is the ball in the box analogy. Bereavement is like a big box with a pain button inside. When you first experience the loss of someone important the physical and emotional feelings are like a great big ball rolling around in the box. Because the ball is so large it will hit the pain button constantly as the box moves around in everyday life. Then slowly over time, some of your feelings may stabilise and the ‘ball’ begins to reduce. A smaller ‘ball’ may not hit the pain button every time offering moments of calm, but will hit the pain button again. Continuing the analogy, the ball will reduce further but never disappear. Grief can strike at anytime as the ball hits the pain button, but overtime the periods between each episode increases. But the pain doesn’t decrease.

Don’t go upsetting yourself

Understandably Christmas and any other major celebration can feel overwhelming. Losing a parent, child, sibling, partner, anyone important to you changes everything. You will be reminded of them through Christmas cards, family traditions, even TV adverts. You may want to talk about the time you spent with your loved one and how you feel, and cry. This may be met by discomfort and avoidance by others who feel not talking about your loss and getting upset would be better. Instead of allowing the healing nature of grieving to take place, they would prefer a ‘stiff upper lid’ approach of repression in an attempt to pretend there are no feelings here. After all it is Christmas.

So how do we look after ourselves while being around others at this time?

Ways to cope with grief
  • Talk about how you are all feeling about Christmas as a family before the day
  • Give yourself permission to not be OK over Christmas
  • Also give yourself, children and anyone else you live with permission to look forward to Christmas
  • Normalise missing your loved one and make time and space to remember them
  • Decide as a family what you would like to do to remember – watch movies, listen to music, set up a photo slide show, create a memory jar of post it notes reminding you of your loved one, or create a new family tradition to remember them.
  • Feel OK to back out of plans, its a tough time
  • Be gentle with yourself and take time to self care

Offering yourself this understanding and kindness reduces the pressure and expectation at a time when you understandably feel emotionally drained. This in turn helps to consider how others in the family feel, and ways they may wish to mourn. Being able to express how you feel is the beginning of the journey to heal and supporting one another…. and to coping with grief.

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About the author: Chris Boobier is the owner of CRB Counselling specialising in anxiety, trauma & loss. Supporting adults and adolescents, she is passionate about helping people be their authentic self through counselling.

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