As we approach the holiday season many are getting ready for celebrations. There’s Thanksgiving, Diwali, Hannukah, Christmas and New Year’s. But what if you’re feeling like a blue Christmas instead of a white one?
How does one cope with expectations and traditions during this family-oriented season?
These family expectations, whether spoken out loud or not, can create, for those who are grieving, feelings of pressure that can be very anxiety-provoking.
We usually think of these special days as a time to be jolly or celebratory.
But what if your world has been turned into chaos and overwhelm, and you are drowning in sadness?
Navigating the holiday traditions can be especially tricky if you have children while all of you are grieving. Navigating extended family expectations can be even more tricky.
Family Traditions for Children/Teens
Maintaining traditions can be so grounding for children. Yet grief can be very draining and make it difficult, even temporarily impossible, to maintain the energy required for the extra work to make celebrations and traditions special.
There may be traditions you used to have such as baking, making or buying a new Christmas ornament every year for the tree, or hanging up stockings for everyone in the family the night before Christmas.
I would encourage you to continue maintaining those traditions as a way of honouring your loved one’s presence still being with you but in a different form. I share more ways to stay connected to your loved one after their passing in a my free resource, “You Don’t Have to Say Goodbye: 5 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Loved One After Their Passing”.
Children thrive on predictability and need familiarity and structure, even more so with a death in the family. So, repeating old traditions, such as leaving food for Santa and the reindeers, can be more meaningful than you may realise – even if they act like they are too grown up or too cool for all of that anymore.
Holiday Gift-Giving While Grieving
Sometimes when a parent or grandparent dies, in order to ‘fill the void’ of the person who has died, you may feel an urge to over-compensate by spending more money than usual on gifts or buying large ticket items, especially for children or teens.
Your children might ask for them; but after over 25 years of working with young people, I can assure you that it is not those items that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
It is the activities and traditions you engage in over the family-oriented holidays that create lasting memories, such as playing board games, watching tv, or baking together, etc.
Encourage Open Expression of Feelings
It is not unusual for children to be playing one minute then suddenly grieving for a while then just as suddenly to go back to playing again.
Grief comes in waves, so feelings will be up and down, particularly over this period.
As a parent, let it be known in your immediate family that it is okay to simply put feelings out there without expecting people to respond or cheer you up, such as simply saying “I’m sad that (Name) isn’t here today to be part of this tree decorating activity.”
Normalize and validate the feelings that come up for people.
The Second Year of Christmas Without Them, and Beyond
Sometimes parents may not have the energy to do much in the first year of a loss; so, they may overcompensate the 2nd year, proclaiming something like “this year we’re going to make sure we have fun [or be happy, or something else]”.
Parents may insist on doing things that not everyone will be prepared to do as people process grief in different ways and times.
Extended Families and Boundaries
Family and friends can pull you in different directions with numerous invitations to go to extra festive events. Although it may feel difficult, this is where the ability to hold boundaries comes in.
It can be very challenging to say ‘no’, or ‘not this year’ to loved ones. Extended families like to make plans for these holidays, often in advance, and there can be lots of communication and commitments required. Sometimes they like to tell you how to spend the holiday time.
But sometimes you don’t know how to respond to the in-laws and extended family.
Sometimes, saying “I need to go with the flow – can you stay flexible please?” or “I don’t know” can be helpful. It can take the pressure off extended family if they don’t have to anticipate your feelings. It’s also possible that some extended family members may hold off making plans and think ‘let’s see what the grieving family want to do’ and wait to get some communication.
Have a Plan B
It is okay to communicate a plan of intention of how you might be interacting with extended family over the holiday season – but have an escape plan as well. It’s perfectly alright to deviate from a plan. Be wise in choosing a supportive person or two in the extended family to whom you can convey the escape plan, so that if you become overwhelmed and don’t want to engage or need to leave a gathering early, they can cover for you or explain your absence if you need to bow out early or entirely.
It would be important to also tell your children of the alternative plan.
Every year it will feel different. So make a plan every year.
Be sure to take into account your limitations while grieving. Consider, if you can, the extended family’s limitations, too, but remember that self- care and not being too wrapped up in what others think is critical for your healing time. Let everyone else be responsible for their own feelings and reactions.
Loneliness in Community
Sometimes you may feel lonely and isolated, even with children or close family members around, because it can be hard to show your grief openly around them.
Or, some of the situations described above may not apply to you if you don’t have children or close family nearby.
Often people find themselves moving home sometime after a death, and in those circumstances you could be celebrating Christmas in a new home and a whole new community, which can deepen the feelings of loneliness.
These and similar circumstances can create feelings of loneliness and isolation such that it may feel like no one around you understands the pain of your loss.
Sometimes those who have been through similar circumstances can provide us with the most meaningful support at this time of the year.
There are lots of lights and noise during the winter festivals. When you don’t feel up to such celebrations, it’s easy to feel left out, which only adds to your loneliness and grief.
If you’d like a quiet, reflective and dedicated space to grieve with the support of others who understand your circumstances on the grief journey, consider joining us for the online Blue Christmas support group.
- help you manage your feelings of anxiety
- reduce stress and leave with a sense of being held and a sense of calm
- experience a uniquely-designed alternative reflective Service to mark the season, with rarely heard or never-heard-before poetry, music, and Reflection Talk and a chance to honour your loved one in a candle-lighting ceremony.
Here is a sample of The First Noel that will be played at the Service, arranged and performed by Killarney Star (aka Robin O’Donovan) (c) 2021, Killarney Star Music, ASCAP – https://killarneystar.com/track/2929656/the-first-noel
For more info about the Blue Christmas Service and to register click here
About Santou Eve
With 25 years’ field experience as a certified grief educator & coach, counsellor / therapist, published writer, spiritual leader / hospital chaplain, and a specialist young people practitioner, Santou helps those grieving loss from relationship challenges, health diagnoses and dying, and bereavement transitions.
Santou has lived internationally across many cultures. Personal circumstances and themes of major losses (such as surviving Genocide, being a child war refugee, loss from cancer, etc.) created the conditions for her to process and train to help people with trauma and grief.
Her vision to create a radical movement about how to face loss and grief has fueled her work supporting families, groups, and individuals (aged 13+) around the world.
Through her unique combination of professional training, spiritual practices (within and outside of organised religion) as well as personal experience of multiple types of losses, Santou has developed a unique, therapeutic-spiritual method called the S.T.E.E.R.™ approach, to help people through in-life, dying, and bereavement transitions.
Santou is holding space for you and would love to see you thrive. She is offering a holiday special rate for a 30-minute call to address a specific issue (e.g. sleep difficulties, personal stress, etc.) to start helping you move out of your suffering in a gently accelerated way. Click here find out more and to schedule your call. And you can download a free helpful resource called “You Don’t Have to Say Goodbye” while you’re there.