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Ritual and heartache: Coping with Christmas after bereavement

A mother and child ornament under a pine tree

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

“Since my mom died six years ago, Christmas has never been the same. I’ve had to work hard to reach the heights of excitement so many others experience at this time of year.”

Annie Broadbent supports people through bereavement in her work as a therapist and in her regular advice column on the Funeral Zone blog. Here, Annie, who is a trained psychosynthesis counselor, takes a more personal look at the poignancy of Christmas when we are grieving someone we loved.

“It felt like there was no escape”

Christmas. It’s so loaded. The pressure for perfection is immense. Just turn on the televison for five minutes and you’ll be flooded with images of happy and harmonious families living in abundance of… well, everything.

I am not a Scrooge. I love Christmas. I am fortunate to have had many years of abundant love, presents, good food, and fun. So I didn’t know what to do for the first Christmas after my mom died. None of it made sense. I didn’t fit in to the picture that was painted everywhere. And it felt like there was no escape.

This is the case for so many people, every year. For some reason more people die over the Christmas holidays than at any other time of year. And even for those who have lost someone earlier in the year, the first Christmas is always a deeply painful and confronting experience.

This year, someone, or maybe a few people you know – your neighbor, your friend, your colleague – will be feeling very differently about Christmas, perhaps dreading it. They will shudder every time that old reliable conversation strikes up about Christmas plans, going home and they will pray they are not asked: “And what you are doing for Christmas?” Now, they may feel that there is no place for them.

A profound unfamiliarity

Since my mom died six years ago, Christmas has never been the same. I’ve had to work hard to reach the heights of excitement so many others experience at this time of year.

This year, I am spending my first Christmas as a mother. And I feel deeply soothed in focusing my attention on giving to another what I no longer have. I feel on some level, it repairs and replaces what is missing from my life. Yet at the same time, I am more acutely aware of the pain of my loss than ever before. I’m confronted in a more profound and powerful way that I will never experience my mom’s Christmas Day ever again. I will never receive a present from her. I will never be cooked a meal by her. I will never be looked after by her. Ever.

I think it’s important for humanity, and for our sanity, that we have planned periods of togetherness. When year after year we spend a chunk of time which represents family, giving, gratitude and indulgence, it anchors us to something that’s separate from – and something more than – the normal day-to-day distractions and thoughtlessness we so often live with.

Support and adapting to change

We can get deeply attached to tradition and familiarity. This means when that ritual needs to change, or is no longer appropriate, it can cause enormous tension, conflict and pain within families. So a little flexibility is required.

Of course we mustn’t – and shouldn’t – deny our own excitement and the pleasure we might get from this time of year, simply because we know there are others not feeling the same. But we can always be mindful of others and how different their experience may be.

In the seasonal spirit of generosity and goodwill, if you are spending Christmas with someone who has lost a loved one recently, and is likely not looking forward to it, let them do Christmas their way.

  • If that means they don’t want to join you for Christmas lunch, let them.

  • If it means they want to go away, or spend it with someone else, perhaps for the first time, let them.

  • Try and make some room of your own for change.

And for all of us, while this drawn-out period of celebration and excess takes over, let’s remember there is always a large community of people who are grieving for their loved ones, possibly more at this time of year than the rest.

The next time we feel that Happy Christmas! reflex kick in, maybe we could all take a moment to pause, consider the person standing in front of us and their unique circumstances, and sincerely offer them words of support and kindness.

Annie Broadbent is a trained psychosynthesis counselor and the author of Speaking of Death (What the Bereaved Really Need) , a companion journal about grief inspired by her own experiences after the death of her mother.

  • Discover more of Annie’s advice columns here. If you, or someone you know, is struggling to cope with bereavement this Christmas, a bereavement support organization may be able to help. You'll find further useful information about understanding the grieving process and supporting people who have lost a loved one, in our Help & Resources section.