The first Christmas after the death of someone you love

Some suggestions

This is my second Christmas as Director of Bereavement Services. Last year, I contacted a number of people whom I knew were approaching their first Christmas without a beloved family member. I sent them the following list of suggestions. Since last year I have had some more ideas to add to the original collection.

For, there are occasions that affect us more deeply, when we are mourning. These are times when we would expect this person to be present. "We were all home for Christmas" or "This is the first birthday she has missed". Such comments highlight the awareness that life is not the same. This will be a very different Christmas from last year.

In the Recommended Reading I introduce Mary Butt’s book, Michael Mike Bert. Mary’s experience of Christmas is worth quoting:

"The worst anniversary for me has always been Christmas. Christmas was always important to us as a family, and Michael’s absence was very painful. This was to be the one aspect of Michael’s death which I was unable to face up to. We did not have Christmas at home for four years – the first one we spent with our good friends and the following three years away at a beach house.

The music of Christmas Carols has been very emotional for me (and still is) – the sound of Carols when out shopping was an exercise in control, as I would want to cry but would feel very embarrassed and uncomfortable with displaying my emotions in public."

Mary had her strategies for coping with Christmas after Michael died. Here are some more suggestions. They are no guarantee there will be no grief at Christmas. They are more ways of preparing or thinking that can help you get through the grief and make the most of Christmas.

1. Focusing: "Do what you are doing", was the good advice I was once given. There is also a Buddhist technique called "mindfulness" that is similar to this. Focus on what you are doing. Give it your complete attention. Not only will you make the most of what you are making or fixing or creating, but you will less tired and more peaceful. If you are making the Christmas cake, make the cake. The same applies to cleaning, decorating, washing, playing . . . If I am "doing what I am doing", I won’t be thinking of my sadness.

2. Innovating: Do something different. I know people who had Christmas in a different place for the first anniversary. You might go out to lunch, have a quieter meal, have a more social gathering, spend more time alone, listen to music . . .

3. Remembering: Looking at photos may be what you need. Talking about previous Christmases and things you have done together might be more important. Preserving the various traditions or rituals can be comforting and familiar. The other day I looked on as my mother-in-law made one of her famous Christmas puddings. This recipe and technique is part of the family heritage. I now have the heavy responsibility of remembering it!

4. Honouring: You might light a candle in memory of the person who has died and keep it alight during the meal or the day. Other ways of honouring could be a special decoration on the tree, a brief time of quiet or prayer at the start of the meal, a favourite dish on the menu . . . Like many people at this time, you could choose to visit the cemetery.

5. Companioning: Surround yourself with family and friends, plenty of activity and attention and demands. Some people find this helpful. Or, seek out a few, or, one or two close friends or family to spend time with. Being with people is important if you have a tendency to get caught in your own thoughts and grief.

6. Gentling: In her cooking show, Nigela Lawson has a session on "comfort food". It is a good idea. Food for our tired, hurt, lonely, grieving self. Spoiling oneself, with favourite food, with rest, sleeping, entertainment. It may be a special piece of music, a book or film that uplifts or distracts or amuses. Whatever brings comfort for you at the time. Allowing yourself to be gentle with yourself.

7. Believing: Going to church may by what you need. The familiar prayers and hymns can be reassuring. Trusting in the goodness and mercy and compassion of God can take a weight off one’s heart. You might allow yourself to return to traditional ways of believing or find inner peace in new and different expressions of faith.

8. Enjoying: Give yourself time to enjoy whatever celebrations and gathering you choose. You can see the beauty of the faces of the family. Take time to look at the play of children and the quiet of the elderly. Taste the food and listen to the chatter. Laugh, if you want to. Let yourself enjoy whatever you find enjoyable.

9. Relaxing: Look for opportunities to release the brake, in safe and trusting ways. Cry if you want to. Put your feet up. Take the pressure off. Breathe deeply and let it all out! Walk or lie down, find a place and a way of being that allows you to let go, in some way, even for a moment or two.

10. Whingeing: I once worked with a group of men who indulged in what they called "creative whingeing". They would meet fortnightly, complain about their physical aches and pains, their caring situations (they were looking after their wives who were disabled in various ways) and their concerns. The group gave each man permission to say-it-as-it-is. For that hour and a half, they could say the things that had been bottled up since the last meeting. It was OK. And, when the meeting was finished, so was the whingeing. There may be a good friend, a member of the family, a small group or an outside health professional with whom you can unload. This is not counseling and it is not complaining. This is "creative whingeing" whereby you set aside a time and a place to unburden yourself. When the time is over, you stop the whingeing and see how you feel.

11. Planning: The point of this little list is to remind you to make some preparations for Christmas and other occasions when you know you will be emotionally vulnerable. While we cannot anticipate many of the unexpected assaults on our peace – the favourite song heard in a supermarket, a casual inquiry from a person we hadn’t seen for some time, a photo, an item of clothing, anything that triggers a memory – we can work out activities or ideas that seem to help us through difficult times. The above list is some activities and ideas that may be of help.

Richard White

Director of Bereavement Services, W.N. Bull Funeral Directors, Sydney

Published in the latest issue of Dialogue, W.N. Bull's monthly bereavement newsletter. Enquiries: rwhite@wnbull.com or Tel: 02 9519 5344