It’s Christmas time, in case you haven’t noticed. It’s the season of overindulgence, dodgy Christmas jumpers and collapsing onto the sofa with your family surrounded by empty chocolate wrappers. It’s also the time of year that we are surrounded by a cultural tendency to focus heavily on spending time as a family, which can serve as a cruel reminder to those who are experiencing bereavement.
If, like me, you have experienced grief at Christmas, you will know only too well that you are faced with a seemingly unlimited number of challenges. Just as soon as you’ve recovered from accidentally picking up a pair of ‘Merry Christmas Dad’ socks in the shop, somebody’s asking you about your family’s Christmas plans. What do I say to that? How do I explain my situation without drowning the poor unassuming person in awkwardness, or even worse, projecting my sadness on to them? I end up apologizing to people about my dad’s death. How ridiculous is that? I say things like, “Oh sorry, my dad died in December when I was 13, so Christmas actually reminds me of his death! And I’m still not over it!” How thoughtless of me to feel glum when everyone is supposed to be as jolly as a Christmas pudding.
My dad was the most alive person that you can imagine. He was a 6”2 rugby player with a loud, booming laugh who loved the great outdoors, socialising, and, most of all, my mum. My main childhood memory is that my parents were always laughing, and that makes me very fortunate. Similarly, I realise that having such fantastic parents is a fate that not all people are blessed with. Nevertheless, I only knew my dad for 13 years, and he was seriously ill for two of those years, so the fact that other people are allowed to enjoy their lovely dads for decades at a time still evokes a huge amount of jealousy in me. If you have a nice dad, please make the most of him. Take him for a beer and give him a hug.
Now that my beloved grandparents have joined the list of people missing at Christmas, I fear that I have adopted a slightly Scrooge-like attitude, but years of reluctant festivities have encouraged me to explore various ways to deal with bereavement at Christmas time. If I knew the answer to this problem, I would be a very popular person indeed but unfortunately, I have failed to discover a magical cure for grief. However I have tried and tested a number of coping mechanisms over the years and some of them have made me feel temporarily better.
1) Have a low key Christmas. Don’t let others make you feel guilty about your emotions. Christmas is essentially just another day. Grief is a long process, and if you want to have a quiet day you are entitled to do just that.
2) Fly Away! My personal favourite of all the coping mechanisms - take a break and explore somewhere new. I took this one to the extreme and moved abroad for four winter seasons, and worked in different ski resorts across the world. This was very effective indeed, as I was busy working every Christmas Day and in my spare time I was able to ski, which is my absolute favourite pastime.
3) Write it down. Expressing your feelings on paper can have a healing effect and it has helped me in the past. There’s something to be said for taking 20 minutes to sit and scribble furiously, so all that sadness, anger and frustration isn’t just sloshing about inside your head.
4) Do something you love (see point 2!) If you love to travel/exercise/ cook then spend Christmas Day doing just that. If you love hiking, go out in to the countryside and treat yourself to some beautiful views away from all the Christmas humdrum.
5) Help yourself by helping someone else. Volunteering for a good cause has always been hailed as a rewarding, positive experience that can improve well-being. There are tonnes of charities and community groups who organise Christmas Lunch for isolated people. Why not go along and help, so you can keep busy and see that your presence has positively impacted somebody’s day? How about that for the feel good factor?
Obviously there’s no magic answer, but I know that the people I’m missing wouldn’t want me to be upset for the whole Christmas period. My experiences have taught me just how short life is, so spending time doing the things you love with people who make you happy can only be a good idea. Whilst I’m not excited about Christmas, I want to celebrate all the amazing people, past and present, that I’m lucky enough to have in my life.