Festive Season: when 'celebrating' is hard after a loss

Author: Katrina Sweeny, Provisional Psychologist

Grief and loss are part of life and experienced by most of us at some time. People deal with grief in many different ways, and do not necessarily go through a predictable group of ‘stages,’ although some do. How people grieve can depend on the circumstances of the loss (e.g., sudden death, long illness, death of a young person, suicide) as well as past experiences and cultural expectations.

There is no time limit on grief - some people get back to their usual routine fairly quickly, others take longer. Some people prefer time alone to grieve while others crave support and company. Current research tells us that if we shift our focus from “moving on” or “getting over” our loss towards expanding out our life to honour and hold our grief, we are more likely to have healthier, long-term outcomes.

However, when it comes to the ‘important’ holidays we normally associate with family - Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Easter, Eid al-Adha, or, more modern celebrations such as Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day – our loss can seem all the more raw and painful. The rituals and routines that were so predictable and comforting (and possibly at times annoying) are no longer there, and we may feel completely lost; “What can I/should I/must I do?” and “How on Earth can I get through this time without my loved one?” The lead up can seem draining and emotionally exhausting: seeing other couples or families together really hurts.

  • Planning in the time before significant events can help with feeling in control and easing anxiety. You may want to maintain the rituals of the past (particularly for children), try something new, or, you may decide to cancel your usual activities. That’s okay, but be sure to have something else to do so you are not isolated.
  • Involve others such as friends and family by letting them know your plans. Be honest about how you feel and that it is a difficult time for you. Choose to be with people who are understanding and supportive. Let them know it is okay to talk about your loved one and it is okay if you or they get upset. If you are going to attend another event on the day, let the organiser know you may need to leave, depending on how you feel.
  • Take care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising, ideally outdoors. Be as honest as you can about your emotions – don’t supress crying if you feel like it - and also remember it is okay to have a good time. Happiness and sadness can co-exist.
  • On the day give yourself, and others, permission to not be okay. Perhaps arrange a small ritual or a creative activity – visit a significant place, light a candle, write a letter, draw, craft, listen to or make music, plant a tree – to honour and acknowledge your loss. Talk with supportive people to share your collective memories of your loved one. And, set aside some time to do something specifically for you that feels good like a massage, a special coffee, a walk or reading…You may find a journal useful to identify things that were difficult, to help you plan next year.

If anything in this article has affected you and you would like to speak to someone, you can call:

  • Lifeline 131114, Mensline 1300789978, Beyondblue 1300224636, Kidshelpline (5yr-25yrs) 1800551800 for assistance 24/7.
  • Griefline on 1300 845 745 from 12noon to 3am, 7 days a week.

References:

Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, www.grief.org.au

Hall, Christopher, Director, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement,(2011) Beyond Kübler-Ross: Recent developments in our understanding of grief and bereavement, Inpsych, Australian Psychological Society.

Klass, D., Silverman, P.R., & Nickman, S.L. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Washington: Taylor and Francis.

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