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Grief at Christmas time - a personal perspective

A small contribution to #GriefAwarenessWeek and #ShareYourStory

Grief is a wretched and unpredictable companion. This lingering shadow can jump out and shock us, or it might be triggered by key events like anniversaries or Christmas…

Christmas can be a very hard time for those that are grieving. Right now, for example, I’m remembering how mum would have started asking what everyone was planning to do for Christmas around September time and what they wanted for Christmas back in October! To detract from the guilt I then feel from the memory of my short-shrift responses to these questions, I’m imagining how she would have turned up about 6am on Christmas day bottle of fizz in one hand and dog in the other wearing one of her brightly-coloured necklaces (not unlike her selfie at the end of this piece).

Grief might be felt particularly acutely this year because many of us are experiencing more stress than usual as a result of Covid-19 (Dr Ranjan Chatterjee talks about the significance of monitoring the amount of micro stress doses we have for example), which affects our ability to deal with the impact and stress associated with a major negative life event like the death of a loved one. Here are just a few of the ways grief can be hard, and especially so at Christmas time.

1) The emotional chaos of the unknown: Although death is one of the few certainties in life, its impact is never predictable. Whether the death was a sudden shock or whether it was a gradual ‘known’ decline, it is impossible to foresee how we are going to be affected. And so, when death hits, loved ones are catapulted into a world of unknown, emotional chaos. This can be incredibly hard for those of us who like to be in control. Death means that we will always lose some control of our lives and emotions. Add to this uncertainty the widespread sense of the ‘unknown’ caused by a global pandemic, and we have ourselves a double-whammy of the unknown and the unpredictable this year. Human beings aren’t great at dealing with ‘unknowns’ in the very best of circumstances.

2) The absence of human connection: Many people are going to feel the absence of people this Christmas, whether or not we are recently bereaved. Those who are grieving will feel the additional impact of not being able to see loved ones that have died. We feel their absence in acute, indescribable ways but especially at times when we would normally lay a place for them at the dinner table. There will be many who both cannot be with the people they really want to because of Covid-19 restrictions AND who cannot see those people who have died.

3) Loneliness: A grief journey is lonely and people have reported that feelings of loneliness and social isolation have already been especially high this year . While there are ways in which we can be ‘supported’ when grieving, ultimately we have to find the best way to help ourselves and that can be a really lonely journey (so much so that I’ve been trying to reframe loneliness in my own grief learning journey), made additionally complicated if we have other stresses in our lives (e.g. work or family commitments, or financial difficulties etc.).

4) Funeral and death-related rituals and traditions have been significantly different this year: People don’t tend to talk about the rituals and norms associated with the immediate aftermath of a death in this country, but this year our understandings of ‘normal practice’ have been turned upside down because of the pandemic. From not being able to have many people at a funeral, to having to wear masks in a chapel and be spaced out from the friends and family whose shoulders we want to cry on, there are many practices that have been adapted or even stopped. A crucial omission from ritual relates to the limitations placed on celebrating and remembering someone in an in-person post-funeral wake or memorial. We don’t yet know what the impact of this will have been on the grieving process, but we do know that many people find solace in ritual at very difficult times.

5) When you are feeling unwell or vulnerable, you cannot turn to the person you need most: Illnesses can be common in winter anyway, add Covid and the challenge of non-urgent medical procedures being postponed to the mix, and we potentially have a situation where quite a few people are just not going to feel well this Christmas. Having lost mum two years ago and heard other peoples’ stories too, I’ve learned how we all feel the loss of a parent most acutely when we are feeling vulnerable, low or ill — they are the very people we would normally turn to at these times for comfort.

With the above in mind, I have been considering the ways to support those who are grieving this Christmas by recollecting what has helped me. As an occasional celebrant, I have seen the impact of death first-hand many times and always learn something new about how to (and how not to) try to support others. Of course, I am no expert and cannot make any claims that these will necessarily help you… but you never know! Here are a few actions I have personally found helpful and I’d be interested to hear other experiences:

i) Don’t hesitate to seek professional support if you have the slightest hunch this might help. There are a number of wonderful charities and organisations with the wisdom and capacity to support us when we are grieving — some are there to meet specific needs (e.g. for children who have lost parents or the other way around). For example, there are also lots of useful resources here and my sister, my son and I all benefited from the support offered by Cruse counsellors Personally, I have found it difficult or unhelpful to talk about mum to people who knew her, it has been easier to speak to someone more objective — others will have different needs.

ii) If you do not feel that the funeral happened in the way you or the deceased would have wanted, start planning a memorial or life-celebration for next year. In the first few weeks after a death many of us are in ‘survival’ mode and, in retrospect, I rather regret us rushing into planning a very large funeral and wake for my mum after her sudden and unexpected death. If we had waited at least six months I think the experience and grief journey would have been incredibly different for all those affected by her death. I have heard other people share similar perspectives.

iii) Take the time to notice how the person you are grieving is still present in different aspects of your life. Notice how character traits are shared with your children or siblings. Notice how you have been impacted by the values or life-lessons they shared with you. Although this can be an upsetting, there is some comfort to be gained from this process and I advocate carving out the time and space for this reflection — whether this is done alone or with others.

iv) Although a grief process involves learning to live with the discomfort of a permanent new state of being, I’ve noticed that the sadness can be made ‘less bad’ by some key factors. These factors will be unique to each of us and will vary according to context, personality, relationship and circumstance. I have found that by finding a ‘learning positive’ the spells of darkness and despair do not last as long as they once did — I’m not always a fan of the phrase ‘only time will heal’ as believe we also need to be actively involved in the healing process too. For me, it has been about reframing grief as a learning journey and more consciously appreciating the positive constants in my life (e.g. my children and family). I have also learned to take comfort from the fact that although mum would not have chosen to suddenly die at 65 (she had just retired and moved to be near her grandchildren and the station so that she could fully enjoy the next chapter), doctors have reassured us that her death would have been quick. Mum greatly feared a slow demise and she was an advocate of assisted suicide. I also like to think that she would have been ecstatic about how we have moved and simplified our lives since her death.

v) Finally, I have growing appreciation for the advice I was given to ‘lower expectations’ of yourself (and others) when grief hits hard. This can be interpreted in different ways, and we gradually discover its bespoke meaning through our unique grief journeys. Briefly, for me, it has been about accepting that some days I just won’t be as ‘productive’ and so it has been about lowering both my and others’ expectations and putting mechanisms in place to broker the impact of a ‘less than 100% day’! It may help to lower our expectations of others this Christmas —this will translate in a variety of ways.

You may notice that I don’t shy away from using the language of death and dying which may not be comfortable reading for some. I see no reason to soften the language of death. Death is permanent and horrid, grief is permanent and horrid, but it is a normal part of the life-cycle that we have to get much better at talking about. I know mum would have agreed.

Mum's Selfie, 2018

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