Christmas day was very hard for me the first year after my father died because his birthday was on Christmas day. A double whammy really. The following December, I remember feeling almost moribund in the four or five days leading up to the actual day. If I could have written a letter to everyone around me it might have read something like this:
Can’t you see I am crying inside? I want my Dad so much and I am furious that you are all here together preparing for a fantastic together time at Christmas because I can’t have that or him. I don’t want to join in, I want to go to bed and ignore you all. I don’t want to look at cheerful decorations, or sit down to a meal with you, or exchange presents. I am trying to look normal, maybe I have tricked you into thinking I am OK, but I am not OK. Far from it. Your resolute cheerfulness is a thorn in my side and the expectation that I will join in as normal, is a travesty. Please, please could something happen to just let me not have to participate or tolerate this. Give me a sleeping draught and wake me up on 1st January, that would be perfect. Why on earth can’t I tell you how I feel? And why on earth don’t I just say no, but I don’t/can’t, so I am pretending and carrying on because that is what I do. I feel utterly lonely amongst you all.
At that point, I really couldn’t imagine that Christmas day would be alright, but amazingly and despite my worst predictions, it was a nice day after all. All I could reflect on was that all the hard grieving work for that period of time was done in the lead up to the day. My lonely spell broke and it felt heartening to be surrounded by those who love me, thank goodness.
There are so many reasons you might feel lonely at Christmas, being far away from home, not being with the people you want to be beside, a broken heart, a bereavement, being socially isolated or being elderly and alone, to name a few. It is a horrible feeling, akin to a deep 'in the bones' homesickness, and of course, we might try all sorts of ways to avoid it. We might hit the bottle, decide to be really angry about it, plan to be out all day in a flurry of activities. But, it is hard to run away from lonelinesss, it follows you like a shadow and in the end it catches you up and out.
When I think about my own experience of loneliness and grief at Christmas, I would urge you to share how you feel with someone if possible. Keeping it all to yourself is counter-productive, it is like a spotlight on your loneliness. The secretiveness of it seems to re-enforce it. Even saying the words out loud to yourself, or writing them down, is being authentic and making it real. If your grief is big, loud and raw it can be desperately difficult, especially at this time supposedly cheerful time of year.
So here are three things you could do: Share how you feel with someone.
Decide on one thing you could do with someone else, even if it is something small, try to reach out.
Do something for someone else, that often helps alleviate our own feelings of misery in my experience.
If you have found a way to cope with your loneliness at Christmas, please share below, it might help someone else.
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Christmas and Hannukkah are almost upon us and all that merriment and preparation can engender a kernel of fear in you, which grows daily when you are bereaved. What should be a time of excitement, preparations, get-togethers, family bonding and general merriment as well as religious reflection, can end up being a horrible time of anticipated unhappiness and acute grief for you.
Please believe me when I say I have never counselled a grieving person who said to me, “I am so looking forward to the holidays”! Most feel daunted and scared and you can include a good dose of reluctance to cook, to buy a tree and decorate it or to prepare in any way. It is rather that you wish you could wake up and it would all be over. Other people’s enjoyment may be disturbing to you because it sets off a train of thought that re-ignites your grief all too easily.
Previous happy times may be ruminated upon and remembered in precise detail. When you last gathered for the traditional meal, when you decorated the house together last year, he always got the tree for us, she always brought the presents for the grandchildren. It can be the smallest of things that worry you because of course, it’s different now, and it may well be the first holiday event without the person you love.
I want to write about the anticipated grief (dread). I know that the fear is that you won’t be able to survive it, that you might be unable to handle it, that you will cry all day, or breakdown frequently, that you might embarrass yourself in front of family or friends or that your heart literally cannot bear it. There is a tremendous pressure around the holidays and grief adds to that in a burdensome way. Celebrating seems innately unfitting and enjoyment can feel wrong, rather like wearing an itchy sweater inside out and back to front, you want to get it off and never see it again in that moment.
So what can help?
1. Think about what you can tolerate. That will be different for everyone but it might be things like, I can cook a meal but not the one I usually make. I am not having a tree, but I will put the cards up. I can manage my immediate family on the day but no other visitors. We will go out this year instead of being home. We all need to go away this Christmas and do something different.
2. You can set the rules for social events. Remember that an invitation is just that, it is not a three line whip! You can go or not, to please yourself. You can be with friends who can stand by you in your grief and avoid those who can’t. You can say yes to those invitations you feel able to accept but remember you can leave any time. You have a ‘get out of jail free card’. Plan your escape route before you go, book a taxi, take your car and don’t drink so you can leave when you want.
3. Make a plan ahead of time. If you feel overwhelmed, break the period down into small bite sized, manageable pieces. For example, on Monday I will do the food shopping. On Tuesday, I will wrap four gifts, on Wednesday I will phone my mother, on Thursday I will visit my friend. You get the idea, but one thing a day may well be enough. Try and let the rest float away, it simply doesn’t matter, nothing bad is going to happen because you let some of the things go you would normally do.
4. Plan in rest time. Grieving is tiring and allowing time for rest, naps and generally not rushing about, is not being lazy, it is offering yourself time to think, time to feel and time to reflect and that is really important.
5. Let burdensome things go completely this year if you need to. You don’t have to write cards, or buy gifts, or decorate or cook or be on top of everything. Other people’s judgement and your own self-judgement is not helpful, try your very hardest to ignore it.
6. If doing everything exactly the way you have done it in the past works for you, then do that. Traditions in themselves can bring great comfort. If other people (or yourself) have judgements about you carrying on as normal (and what that might mean), ignore them!
7. If it is important to you and/or your family, plan a visit to the cemetery, crematorium, the place you scattered the ashes or any other location that is meaningful, close to or on the day. This is a place where you can feel connected to your beloved, you can talk to them, or think about them. It is a concrete way that they can be included in the day. It can bring peace of mind and a sense of calmness to the whole period.
8. Don’t forget, it is OK to enjoy yourself, to laugh, to relish in grandchildren or family, to appreciate people’s kindnesses and to have fun. Life has to be lived and most people would say that the one who died would want them to enjoy their life, even to live it for them, so don’t waste time feeling guilty about being alive or having a happy moment.
Lastly, the thing that people say most consistently, (and I have experienced this myself more than once), all the anticipatory grief and dread of the day seems to have a purpose. Oftentimes, it is the lead up which is so difficult and the day itself proves to be alright, manageable and even happy in moments. You will survive it, it might not be as bad as you expect and next year it will be that much easier because you have done it before.
If you have any ways in which you have managed the holidays when grieving, then please do share with us below, it really helps other people.
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Fear and grief often go hand in hand and at the moment, with the atrocities which have unfolded in Paris, there is a lot of fear about. I don’t know about you, but in our family those of us living in cities feel very unsettled and anxious. My older children are avoiding the tube, avoiding certain busy public areas and cancelling social plans because they are often in high risk areas. There is a feeling and a dread that these cities will be hit, not if but when.
When we, (and by that I mean those who were not directly affected by the attacks), watch film footage as well as reading the newspapers about people’s shocking experiences, we cannot help but think about what happened and imagine what it would have been like to be there. We are bound to have a reaction. That can vary from ignoring it, which is both a protection strategy and a denial that it could ever happen to us, to feeling the grief very deeply of the loss of life, the awfulness of it and the loss of feeling secure either in the air or on the ground and probably anywhere between those two poles.
Fear is very much a part of grief and at the moment there is a plethora of global grief.
Displaced families fleeing Syria, people dying in air crashes or even disappearing in the case of MH370, people shot and killed whilst on holiday and enjoying the simple pleasures of a music concert together or a cup of coffee. Whilst family members begin to mourn their dead and missing family members, the world grieves for the loss of safety, and the freedom not to think about these things. Deep in our hearts we wonder if it is safe to send our families out into the world and we hope and pray they come back safe and sound. We don’t want to be those families left behind after atrocities and we fear that we might be.
If you have ever grieved, then you will understand that when one death in a family occurs, it often destabilises us temporarily because we wonder who might be next. It can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet and it can be terrifying. From the child whose Mother dies, who asks Daddy, "will you die too?" to the adults who feel fear at the thought of losing another sibling because they won’t feel like a family anymore and they cannot bear it. Fear can show up in all sorts of guises after a death. Some common ones are not wanting to leave the house, a fear of driving, not going out after dark, constant calling and checking on family members, inability to work effectively, constant worry and anxiety and physical problems like stomach aches, headaches, panic attacks, insomnia and other symptoms.
How can communities manage this fear? Well, coming together physically and emotionally is helpful. We are seeing friends surround those who have experienced the terror in Paris, to support them and rejoice in their lucky escapes. We witness Paris, lead by Francois Hollande uniting in big and small ways to face the terror and not be bowed, in the same way Winston Churchill rallied his country behind him in the face of the terror of war in 1939. People are gathering in churches, in communities, in spaces and in homes to mourn and to acknowledge what has happened. This needs to happen.
Things are not so dissimilar for individuals who grieve. Gathering with family and friends, mourning, talking, reaching out to support each other are all helpful. Grief is so much worse when you feel alone with it, and we know what fear feels like at 3am in the morning when it is dark and quiet. Talk to your children, reach out to friends and family and keep the dialogue going. Share your fears because then they start to lose their grip over time.
If grief or fear feels overwhelming or traumatic, reach out and seek help from the talking professions, we are all here to help where we can.
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