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How to cope with your first Christmas after losing a parent

A writer who lost her mum last year shares her coping mechanisms for dealing with grief at Christmas, in the hope of bringing some relief to those who are without a parent for the first time this festive season.

There’s no rule book on how to navigate that first, utterly bewildering, Christmas after one of your parents dies. In fact, it’s a total minefield. How can you communicate your grief, when everyone around you is in party mode? Are the rest of your family OK? Where are you even having Christmas, this year?

They’re all questions that you hope you’ll never need to ask. But someday, they might impose themselves on you – and you will need answers.

There’s no one-size fits all approach to grief. But as my second Christmas without my mum approaches I feel well placed to offer some practical advice. 

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“How I’ve learned to cope with grief at Christmas”

Here’s what I learnt last December, two months after my mum passed away. I was still firmly in that strange, dislocated state that those of us who have been unlucky enough to lose a parent know only too well. 

Communication is key

Last year a mix-up meant we didn’t see my gran on Christmas Eve, which led to a teary phone conversation when we eventually spoke the following day.

How can we avoid such miscommunication? Practicality is vital. Be clear on what everyone’s plans are over Christmas, especially if family members are scattered around the country and long journeys are required. Double check when you’re supposed to be seeing people. Triple check. Be aware of absent-mindedness, which can manifest when people are grieving.

cope with grief at christmas phone call
Coping with grief at Christmas: Communication is key

Of course, communication goes deeper than practical misunderstandings. You need to be open to letting your feelings out too – and accepting those of others in return. Communications expert Miti Ampona says that communication is an “innate human instinct”.

“So when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, even though you may feel lost for words, it’s important you keep talking,” she continues. “If that feels too hard, start by communicating through a touch, a look, or simply by being there.”

Don’t give sad gifts

A few years ago, I watched a friend cry after unwrapping a gift that turned out to be an album of photographs of her deceased mother. It was a lovely gift, but it wasn’t one that she expected to unwrap in the midst of what was supposed to be a happy occasion. She’d been fine, but was suddenly blindsided; pulled back into her grief without warning.

These gifts have their place, but that place is not Christmas. Instead, scatter them throughout the year. A framed poem my mum wrote as a six-year-old now hangs in my grandparents’ living room; I ordered it in the summer, when no difficult anniversaries were imminent. For Christmas this year, they can expect a homely collection of books, jigsaws, brain-training puzzles and knitwear that is our tradition. This is one thing that doesn’t have to change. 

Buy yourself a present

Staying on gifts for a second, because (let’s be honest) they’re fairly important. So here’s my gift to you: buy a Christmas present for yourself. Make it something that you’d have bought for the person you’ve lost, or that they would’ve bought for you. At the very least, make sure it’s something that reminds you of them.

This year, I’ll be buying a large seafood serving plate that is on display in the boutique-y gift shop on my road. It’s adorned with a giant orange crab, and I’ve been mulling over whether to purchase it since July. But it references both my mum’s last name, and her favourite cuisine. So how could I not? 

Stop making comparisons

It’ll become easier when you accept that Christmas will always be different now – but so will everything else.

In my family, our Christmas day used to start with croissants and dressing gowns in our living room, with wintery light flooding in through the French windows. Last year it started with veggie sausages in a Premier Inn, which later made me throw up (Christmas Day is not the optimum time to discover that you’re allergic to Quorn). This could have been utterly depressing, if I let myself compare. I tried not to.

Be wary of social media

Last Christmas came with the realisation that most people would be with their immediate family, in homes they grew up in, surrounded by long-embedded festive traditions – cue Twitter threads about sharing childhood bedrooms with cousins and dads burning the turkey. This was something I definitely didn’t need to see.

happy couple christmas
Coping with grief at Christmas: Try to avoid the picture perfect scenes on social media

Francesca Coles, of Coles Funeral Directors, has worked extensively with grieving families. She believes that social media has its place, but that it’s about finding the most helpful places to engage, such as groups in which members speak directly about grief.

She believes that starting the conversation can only be a good thing - but that we need to know when to switch off.

“Social media can be a minefield around the festive period, with people posting pictures and updates with their loved ones,” she says. “If it starts to feel uncomfortable or all-consuming, it’s time to log off.”

Remember that alcohol is a depressant

It’s important to be aware of how much you’re drinking if you’re already in a state that’s pre-dispositioned to sadness, and this is probably even more essential at Christmas.

Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Roehampton, says that people who are suffering from bereavement “may turn to unhelpful coping strategies such as drinking excessive alcohol or using recreational substances to try and change their mood. Ultimately, misuse of alcohol can actually serve to worsen mood and anxiety after the initial mood elevating effects have worn off, as alcohol is a central nervous system depressant.”

She adds that alcohol “is not a viable solution for managing grief”.

Of course, that’s not to say you can’t have a glass of wine or two – being overly restrictive isn’t going to help. Rather, be mindful of how alcohol can exacerbate existing feelings, and prioritise your self-care.

My limit? Four glasses of red, and I’ll be crying in the Uber. Know yours. 

Pace yourself to avoid exhaustion

Dr. Natasha says: “Mental exhaustion can become very physically draining. Ongoing worry, rumination, sadness, regret and other such negative emotions ultimately take a toll on one’s physical state.”

I definitely experienced this: after five days of travelling around the country to see everyone I possibly could, I came back to London and slept for two days straight, eventually peeling myself out of bed on New Year’s Eve. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but I didn’t realise it until I finally stopped. 

woman burnout
Coping with grief at Christmas: Keep your strength up to avoid burnout

Accept that you probably can’t see everyone

This is especially true if your family used to congregate at your childhood home but in light of that home now being empty have made separate plans.

My family lives across six cities; there’s no realistic way of fitting them all into the very short window of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Instead, I’m planning a pre-Christmas trip in which I’ll visit everyone at a relatively slow pace, before heading back to London for the day itself.

If a similar plan makes you feel guilty, Coles has some advice: “If you let your family members know how you’re feeling, this often goes a long way and can allow you some added flexibility,” she says. “The best advice I can offer would be to plan ahead – let others know how you plan to spend the holidays and what you’re comfortable with, and be very transparent about this.”

Know that it will get better

Yes, you’ve heard it before – but that’s because it’s true. Grief is a shifting, ethereal thing, that sometimes feels weightless but often feels like a fist crushing your heart. Christmas, with its excess and relentless focus on family, is entirely at odds with it.

If there’s one thing to remember, it’s this: you only have to do the first Christmas once. This fresh grief is not your new normal. Next year you’ll have had time to process, and to start moving forward towards the future; bedecked with new traditions that will become part of the festive fabric that you’ve created for yourself. This year, you simply need to get through it.

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