Grief and Loss at Christmas


Dr Kimberley O'Brien

Grief and Loss at Christmas

While Christmas is a time of excitement and joy for many - others would prefer to sleep through a family gathering, avoiding triggers of grief following a, particularly painful year.

People grieve for different reasons - the loss of a grandparent, the loss of a business, a string of miscarriages or a recent divorce. Christmas may be the first public airing to family about the events of the year, and the anxiety associated with the potential outpouring of emotions can stifle the Christmas joy. Knowing how to emotionally prepare for Christmas may be the difference between hiding out in the bedroom and joining your family for an afternoon of fun in the sun.

Know your trigger

Firstly, be aware of your triggers. A family overcoming the loss of a grandparent may wish to avoid having an empty seat ‘where grandpa used to sit’. For others, the empty seat may be a symbol of respect for the missing family member. Take a quick vote among the adult family members to decide if a move outdoors may be a welcome change of scene for grieving family members. Set up a picnic rug under a tree to avoid triggers of grief and loss before Christmas lunch.

While missing family members are likely to be remembered on special occasions, for the majority of people grief is best processed in the most comfortable setting available. That is, raising your glasses to grandpa in the garden may symbolize the celebration of life, while sitting in the presence of his empty chair is more aligned with sadness and loss. Being mindful of the different stages of grief impacting others, such as denial, anger or acceptance, may also help to acknowledge the perspectives of others during sensitive discussions relating to lost loved ones.

Select suitable conversation topics

Secondly, be aware of the discussion topics you’re exposed to following a recent loss. For example, listening to people talk about their pregnancies and newborns may trigger grief for a couple overcoming a series of miscarriages.

Similarly, any reference to the word, “work” may be perceived as an insult to a young entrepreneur following a failed business venture. In fact, many innocent questions or conversations can give rise to defensive responses at Christmas. Taking offence to others is one symptom of grief. At this point, consider refilling your glass of water or checking on the kids for some light-hearted relief. It is natural for family members to show an interest in the lives of each other and asking questions is part of the annual catch-up for many relatives living apart. If anyone asks a question, you’d rather not answer, it’s ok to say, “Hey, enough about me - Let’s talk about you!” or “Hang on a second, I’ll be back” and head to the bedroom to regroup (AKA “losing it”).

The following strategies have been devised to prepare you for the onslaught of questions at Christmas and to help manage common grief responses, such as crying, taking offence, getting angry or rapidly leaving the room.

  • Step 1: Be prepared - Write or draw about the topic you would most like to avoid at least 24 hrs before your family gathering to clarify the issues for yourself.
  • Step 2: Develop a plan - Find the place you feel most relaxed and settle there. Try not to make it in front of the TV. Think outdoors, think shade and comfort. Being antisocial won’t help - It will only increase your anxiety about being perceived as rude.
  • Step 3: Bring props and distractions - Photos from your holiday, a good book or some massage oil. You may give or receive a massage that will completely change your outlook on the day ahead.
  • Step 4: Share your thoughts - Like children, adults are more likely to share their thoughts and feeling when they’re relaxed. A good conversation on Christmas Day may reveal you’re not alone in your grief - Most people have experienced loss in one form or another.
  • Step 5: Be kind to yourself - If you need to have a quiet Christmas, do it. We all need time to reflect and recharge. Write a note, go for a walk...and consider leaving early. There’s always next year.

Further Reading


Grief and loss

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