There are many challenges and questions associated with Christmas that those who have experienced the death of a loved one have to navigate and negotiate.
Like signing cards, trying to wear a joyful mask for the sake of those around you, like having so many memories of the person from this time of year. And often we meet people we don’t know, so are asked questions like ‘Are you married?’.
For these reasons, understandably, Christmas can be a stressful time for someone who has experienced the death of a spouse.
Nathan MacArthur is the Senior Bereavement Counsellor in HammondCare’s northern region. Here he offers some suggestions for getting through your first Christmas without your spouse. This information might also be useful if you have experienced the death of a close family or friend.
1. The anticipation is often worse than the day itself
It’s a natural human thing to brace yourself for something that might be painful or difficult. But what bereaved people often tell me is that the anticipation of a special event like Christmas is worse than the day itself. Sometimes in arriving at the day there will be some relief in getting there and getting it done.
2. Ask for help
Give yourself permission to reach out and ask for the support you might need. Connecting with other friends, family members, professional counsellors and other contacts can be really worthwhile.
3. Spread out your various social engagements
If there are different groups of people you need to see, try to see some on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Day, and still others on Boxing Day so as to spread out the responsibilities that you might have. It will allow you some space to process everything and reduce the risk of feeling overwhelmed.
4. Don’t over promise
Tell people (and yourself) that you’re going to come to an event for a limited period of time, for example, an hour or two. Nobody will mind if you stay longer, but it gives you a get out clause if you’re not feeling up to it or it feels too much once you get there.
5. Be kind to yourself
Christmas is full of expectations, and you need to go easy on yourself. For example, if writing Christmas cards feels too hard this year you may choose not to send any or to do something different instead (e.g. like give to charity in lieu of sending cards, and then simply email or Facebook your friends to let them know). Don’t feel like you have to meet all the usual social expectations. It’s ok to let some go.
6. Create new traditions
There might be something special you want to do to honour the person who has died. Particularly when there are younger children in the house it helps to balance the presents, the food and the excitement of the kids with a time for you all to remember your loved one and reflect on your loss. What that looks like will be different for everyone—it might be visiting the grave, lighting a candle or doing something charitable. It can be really important to talk about what to do so everyone in the family gets to express an opinion and have their needs met.
7. Have some things to say if you feel uncomfortable
Often people don’t acknowledge or say anything to you about your spouse because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. But if you do have people coming up to you and saying things or asking a lot of questions that are difficult, then it’s useful to have some phrases to close things down if it feels a bit too raw.
That can be as simple as turning it around on the other person in some way, for example, saying “Yes, it’s been a tough time, we’re getting through it as best as we possibly can. How are things for you? What’s happening at work? What plans do you have for next year?” This creates a shifting of the focus so you can get out of a situation if you don’t want to talk about something that feels a bit too confronting.
8. Be careful of “shoulds”
Try to do what fits best for you and your family, not what you or others think you “should” do. Give yourself permission not to do things.
Often you don’t quite know until you’re there how you’re going to feel. And what feels right this year might not feel right next year. Sometimes testing out things and seeing how it feels is the only way to do it.
9. Go easy on the alcohol
Christmas is a time of good cheer and there can be a lot of encouragement to overeat and overdrink. The excessive consumption of alcohol is something to watch if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable.
10. Be around people who you find supportive
Sometimes, it can be hard to find people who really understand what you’re going through. Friends can be supportive, but unless they’ve experience the death of a husband or wife it may feel like they don’t quite get it. If you have someone you can share with, it’s good to do that. If you need some time out to rest and be by yourself, that’s important too.
Nathan MacArthur is the Senior Bereavement Counsellor in HammondCare’s northern region. HammondCare offer bereavement services to anyone in the northern Sydney area who has lost a loved one.
Nathan is running a support group for bereaved husbands on December 22nd at 5.30pm, at Greenwich Hospital. This is an opportunity to share experiences leading up to Christmas and how to best cope with this time of year. Please call 9903 8338 if you are interested in attending.
Please note: HammondCare isn’t a crisis service, but is able to offer bereavement counselling across South-West and Northern Sydney. If you are in crisis and need someone to talk to, please phone Lifeline 13 11 14.