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How to Survive Bereavement at Christmas

At least three things we all have in common are birth, death and the difficulty in accepting death - that of others or our own. Anniversaries and major Bank Holidays can be particularly difficult. So how can we help ourselves to cope well?

At least three things we all have in common are birth, death and the difficulty in accepting death - that of others or our own. Anniversaries and major Bank Holidays can be particularly difficult.

How can we help ourselves to cope well?

We associate death with loss, change and pain. Therefore, when death comes into our lives we are often frightened and unprepared. Some find it very hard to cope and fall into deep depression or heightened anxiety, which can culminate in serious physical disease. Why? Because how we think and feel impacts our body - through the brain, central nervous, hormone and immune systems. Depression and fear can provoke changes in our mind, which cause changes in our bodies: elevated blood sugar, muscle tension, memory failure, artery hardening potentially culminating in serious disease like cancer.

At the core of dealing with bereavement, is an awareness of how it affects us, and allowing it to happen. There are no short cuts. What we feel is human and normal. We are not going mad. With a shift in attitude we can develop an inner trust that the pain will lessen with time, and that we can continue to live in the knowledge, that we will survive the loss.

How does the grieving process work?

While the experience of bereavement is as individual as the person living it and as individual as the person who has died, there are also common themes.

We all move through phases, not necessarily in the same order or at the same speed. The length and intensity depends on the nature of our relationship with the other person, the circumstances of death, our support network, and our previous experiences of loss.

  1. The sensation of bereavement immediately after we learn of the death can be mental, emotional and physical - like an electric shock, combined with feeling numb, sick, breathless and confused. In that moment, which can stretch over days, nothing else matters. We are struggling to comprehend what has happened.
  2. We feel disbelief: "This must be a mistake." In the world of denial we can feel isolated from others, who seem to move on, and tell us time is a great healer, that we will get over it, that death is part of life.
  3. We try and make sense of what has happened. We are angry with the person who has left us behind, with others and ourselves. We blame, in an attempt to gain some control of the situation: "If only I had ... If only s/he had...".
  4. We feel de-pressed: our energy, emotional and often physical strength is weakened. We feel vulnerable, irritable and contemplate our own mortality. Practical issues around funeral and other arrangements can feel overwhelming. But they can also provide an escape. Instead of facing up to emotions and allowing them, we keep busy and distracted.
  5. We miss the other, are regularly confronted with reminders of them (photos, smells, clothing, emails, food, a song, a location, a walk, an argument). We may feel guilty for being alive. We remember last words spoken. We may have regrets or questions, which will remain unanswered.
  6. Gradually we may start facing up to the reality, that the other has died and that we continue living without them. We learn to accept and bear the pain with greater calmness than depression.

How can I help myself?

There is no off-the-shelf solution to dealing with bereavement. It is important that you find a way that works for you. Knowing what to expect and recognising the different phases you go through is essential. This can give you a sense of orientation, when you may feel numb or confused.

Many people create their own meaningful ways of support, comfort and closeness: e.g. visiting a grave or memorial location, speaking with the deceased (in our head or out loud), setting a spare place at the table, wearing an item that belonged to them (e.g. a ring or watch), taking an item of their clothing to bed. These rituals help us, when we are not yet ready to accept and to let go, when we need time to get used to the loss.

Overall, the bereavement journey takes at least one year, while we experience many annual events, which we can no longer share with the other: a birthday, Christmas, New Year, the anniversary of their death. Death can be devastating and grieving can be painful for us all. It is a normal process of recovery, of which we do not need to be frightened. It needs to run its course, in order for us to retain our emotional well-being and re-build our lives.

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