Christmas is just a few weeks away, and preparations for big celebration are in full swing. But as people up and down the country plan their food shops, buy presents and make plans for the day, the festive period may also bring up difficult feelings for those who have lost a loved one this year.
For Lena Patel, 40, last Christmas was her first without her mother, who died from ovarian cancer in February 2021. Patel and her children planned to carry on some of the traditions her mother would take part in every year. They bought roasted chestnuts, which her mother ate at this time of year, and lit a candle every day from Christmas until the new year because she loved all the different scents.
Her passing also gave way to new traditions. Last year, Patel’s family bought an angel ornament for their Christmas tree, “to remember my mum as an angel now watching us all,” Patel said. The children asked if the family can drive past their grandmother’s house on Christmas and then come home and watch Home Alone – because that was her favourite festive film.
“No doubt there will be tears shed on Christmas day, but I think it’s important to talk about what you remember, especially with children, and do her favourite things and visit her favourite places,” Patel said.
Ahead of this Christmas, we spoke to experts about some of the steps you could take to cope with grief at Christmas.
Talk to loved ones
Louise Bowen, Covid bereavement coordinator at Marie Curie, says those who are grieving may feel pressure to hide their real emotions and try to be joyful at Christmas, which could be detrimental to their mental health.
“If it is your first Christmas without a loved one, it’s important to have conversations with family and friends so they can be prepared that you might be finding it difficult,” she says.
“If you normally host Christmas, you may not feel up to hosting this year, or you may not want to send Christmas cards, and this is all ok. Let people know if you are finding it hard or don’t want to do these.”
Julia Samuel MBE, a psychotherapist specialising in grief, says naming what you are struggling with can help, as can spending time with loved ones. “Do something that is calming and connecting like going for a walk with a close friend and having a coffee or even a meal at the end of it,” she adds.
With so many people celebrating, Christmas can come with a pressure to feel happy. Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford says those who are grieving should be compassionate with themselves.
“Memories of Christmases past can be triggered by a song, a scent, or a ritual activity like decorating the tree. Things of pleasure may now give rise to sadness or even anger, that your loved one is no longer with you,” Beresford says.
“Be compassionate with yourself. You might not feel like performing certain traditions this year, so give yourself permission to just go with how you feel at any one time. You might not want to let go of that ritual completely, so just tell yourself that ‘for this year’ you’re doing things differently.”
Don’t celebrate if you don’t feel like it
Those who are grieving may not feel like celebrating Christmas this year, and that’s okay.
Andy Langford, clinical director at Cruse Bereavement Support says it can be helpful to decide on whether you will celebrate Christmas in advance.
“Some people may decide they don’t want to take part in any Christmas festivities, whilst others might think it is important to celebrate the day as normal,” he says.
“Some people may want to cancel Christmas and do something completely different like volunteering for the day. There is no right or wrong way.”
Beresford adds that volunteering is a good way to meet new people at a time when you are feeling the lack of a loved one’s presence.
“You don’t have to become life-long buddies with the new people you will meet, but you can start to feel that your life is not over even if your loved one is no longer in your life,” she says.
Consider making new traditions
Like Patel, some bereaved families may want to create new traditions to honour their loved ones or to take their minds off the loss.
“Consider breaking your old routine, such as going for a long walk or attending a different place of worship or maybe going away. This gives you a chance to make new memories to sit alongside those of your loved one,” Beresford says.
Share your memories
Whether or not you choose to celebrate this Christmas, experts recommend finding a way to honour your memories with your lost loved one. Samuels suggests putting together a memory box or taking time to share memories of them with friends and family.
“Remember a loved one. It can help to bring memories of a loved one into the festive celebrations. You could visit the person’s grave or a place that was special to them. You may have photos or memories that you want to think about and share with others on the day to remember that person who has died,” Langford adds.
If you are going through a bereavement, you can access support from Cruse Bereavement Support through their website, or their national helpline on 0808 808 1677).