Grief at Christmas: A personal experience
Sasha, 26, Auckland
After her mum died when Sasha was seventeen, she learned that she had to be honest with herself and those around her about how she was feeling.
‘Putting on a brave face, and not honouring how I was really feeling took a big toll… You don’t know how the day is going to be until you get to it – you may be fine all morning, and a total mess in the afternoon’. Those around you need to allow space for that.
‘It’s important people know that it’s so ok to not be ok’.
Now, eight years on, Sasha finds it helpful to spend quality time with her family at Christmas. They bring Sasha’s mum into their time together by talking about her and sharing memories. For Sasha, returning home for the holidays is something she looks forward to – it feels like a way of reconnecting with her mum.
Sasha’s holiday ritual is to take some time out to go to a meaningful place. The Redwoods in Rotorua is a place that’s full of memories of her mum. Being in the Redwoods is also about spending mindful time in nature: ‘it’s about finding peace, and with that comes connection.’
Guy, 25, Auckland
Christmas became a painful day for Guy after his mum died when he was seven. ‘Christmas has connotations of spending time with family: it’s a time where good things happen. And that was just all the more difficult with the loss of a parent.’
In the first years, Guy’s family coped with the festive season by pretending everything was ok – pretending they were happy. He and his brother were showered with gifts. Their mum’s name wasn’t mentioned, but she was forefront in everyone’s minds. ‘Attempts were made to acknowledge her, but it just felt too hard’.
As the years have gone on, there’s an awareness in Guy’s family that Christmas could’ve been approached differently.
Guy has created his own Christmas ritual. He visits his mum’s grave – sitting with her, taking the time to feel close to her and being with the emotions that come up.
For Guy, it’s important that people feel able to acknowledge the fact that this time of year is hard when you’re grieving. ‘It’s about understanding that there will be sad times, and knowing that you aren’t alone in that.’
The Wolfgram Family, Greater Auckland.
The first Christmases without Kosta were spent at home, holding him close. Quietly, watching home videos of Kosta, just trying to get through. There was not much space for anyone or anything else.
For Kosta’s mum Alex, ‘Christmas is supposed to be a time of togetherness, when families join to celebrate. But the hole of missing your child is so deep and wide – there is this constant gap of not being together. Christmas now also painfully symbolises that we will never be together as a family.’
As with birthdays and anniversaries, the first years are usually the hardest. ‘You don’t know how to do it, how to keep living without your child. You’re not meant to outlive your children. Having to repeatedly face another day and all the rolling significant dates, you just learn how to get through somehow. It doesn’t get easier; we become more practiced at living with our grief and loss’.
For Kosta’s older sister Luka, the meaning and excitement of Christmas ‘died with my brother’. She expresses feeling removed from the significance of Christmas since she lost her brother, as a way of coping. ‘It now feels just like another date in the calendar. You see kids have fun and be happy, and you feel joy and gratitude for that’, but it has lost its meaning and value for her.
As time has gone on, Alex, Simon, Luka and little brother Sava are finding ways to be with the pain of Christmas. They spend time with extended family members who are able to be sensitive, acknowledging Kosta and their collective loss at this tough time of year. Now, the wider family shares in Kosta’s memory, and together hold him at Christmas. They do things to honour him, like putting a present for Kosta under the tree, and ornaments on the tree that symbolise him. They have a little place set up at the table for Kosta, play his games, songs, and try to surround themselves with his favourite people and things.
‘You continue to live and love, for them. Their light keeps shining with us, as we are a part of him, we represent Kosta. We’ll keep shining his light.’
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Freyja Mann’s Advice:
The festive season can be excruciating for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. At this time of year, we’re bombarded with images of happy families celebrating their togetherness. With excited children opening mountains of gifts. Of gratitude, love, laughter, food and joyful commotion.
There is a huge amount of pressure to make the day feel special, especially for young children. If you’ve lost someone precious, this can be distressing or feel downright impossible.
As with anniversaries and birthdays, the lead-up to Kirihimete / Christmas can often feel as hard, or harder, than the day itself.
Why does the Christmas season feel so hard when you’re grieving?
• It’s about the significance of the day: Regardless of whether Kirihimete / Christmas is an important day for you and your family, it holds significance in our community, and so it has an effect on us. Kirihimete / Christmas is a marker of time, and with that comes memories. You won’t remember what we were doing on just any day last year, but you probably know where you were up to as a family last Christmas. You may have painful or traumatic memories of your loved one’s illness or death at this time of year. Or key memories of that person in Christmases past – things they loved to do, rituals they had: memories that can feel crushing in their absence. If the death was of a baby or young child, you may be grieving memories you were never able to make.
• There will be triggers: If you’re unpacking boxes of decorations, you’ll come across items you haven’t seen for a year. You might find yourself looking at kids’ stockings, treasured decorations – things that bring floods of memories and emotions with them. It can also be triggering to spend time with extended family, if they have all members of their family unit still with them. Or with friends or colleagues for whom this is a time to let loose – the last thing you may feel you want to do.
• There is a lot of pressure: to have a good time, to make magic happen for young kids, even to set your grief aside and join in with festivities. There can be plenty of social pressure to attend Christmas get-togethers and events as well.
• You might feel you’re leaving your loved one behind: We can see Christmas as the closing of the year that’s been, and a shift into the new year. It’s a reminder that time is passing and life is moving on. When you’re grieving, that sense that everyone is moving on can feel raw, painful and full of guilt.
So what can a grieving person do to cope?
In the first years, Kirihimete / Christmas might just feel like survival, and that’s okay.
1. Acknowledge that it feels hard: If you can, share your feelings with a trusted family member, friend or professional who can support you through it.
2. Have a rough plan for Christmas day and the days around it: Set out some ideas on what might help you get through, how you’d like to spend the time, and with whom.
3. Keep all commitments open and flexible: Focus on what works for your immediate whānau / family. Don’t let yourself be pressured by other people’s expectations.
4. Be open and honest about where you’re at – keep the people around you in the loop.
How can we support grieving children at Kirihimete / Christmas?
The best thing you can do is to be present with them.
For tamariki / young children, do as much as you can manage to bring them some joy and laughter. Remember that small gestures go a long way for kids, and that quality time with the adults they love is likely to make memories that stick with them long after the excitement of any gifts has faded.
For mātātahi / young people, have a discussion about how they’d like to spend their Christmas. Come up with some ideas together. Assure them that no matter how the day goes and feels, you’ll get through it together. Encourage them to share the emotions that come up for them. If you can, do the same yourself and talk together about what helps when big feelings come up.
Tamariki / children may want to ‘take a break’ from their grief and just enjoy the feeling of having a normal Kirihimete / Christmas. Let them lay down the load for a while, if they can. Reassure them that it’s okay to laugh and have fun, even when you’re grieving!
Remember: you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you think you’ll be struggling to cope, ask a family member or friend to be ready to step in and spend time with the kids. The holidays are a demanding time with tamariki / children – let alone when you’re all grieving.
However you choose to cope during the festive season is okay. There is no right or wrong way: what works for one whānau may not for another. Do what feels right for you.
Remember that different family members, especially mātātahi / young people, will have their own needs and ideas, and these will change year to year. Ask your tamariki and mātātahi what they want to do this year.
If you’d like some ideas on how to hold your loved one with you this Kirihimete / Christmas, we’ve got some tips for you.
The Twelve Days of Christmas with Grief
#1: Make a plan
Having a plan as a whānau / family can help ease tension and stress, especially in the days leading up to Kirihimete / Christmas - they can be tougher than the day itself. Think about things like:
• where you’ll be
• who you’ll be with
• how you’ll mark the day and your loved one’s memory
Then on the day, give yourselves permission to change your minds if something feels too hard.
Be guided by what feels right for your whānau. Let people know in advance that your plans may change at the last minute.
#2 Have a bite
Did your loved one have a favourite Christmas dish? Something they loved eating or enjoyed making? If it feels right, bring them in with this favourite food on the day.
If this feels overwhelming, consider something smaller. Have a snack or lolly they liked – take a quiet moment by yourself, or ask your family to share it with you.
Whether a big BBQ or a brief bite, food can be a way to take a moment and be with them.
#3: Go to a special place
Is there a place that reminds you of your loved one, or where you feel close to them?
For some people, this is the grave or place where ashes were scattered. For others, it’s a place that’s full of memories or the presence of the person.
Spending time in nature has so many benefits when we’re grieving. It’s grounding; it encourages us to be mindful. It reminds us of the cycles of nature and brings perspective.
Kirihimete / Christmas can be a time of incredible stress and busy-ness. Take a moment for reflection – go by yourself, with close family or with trusted friends.
#4: Create a visible presence.
It can be comforting to have a visible marker of your loved one in the room during Kirihimete / Christmas. This could be a special Christmas ornament that you make or buy in their memory. Or, a present under the tree or place at the table.
If this feels like too much, that’s okay too. You might prefer to go with something small and symbolic that you keep to yourself. A piece of jewellery or precious stone in your pocket.
For tamariki / kids, having a physical item to carry with them on tough days can be a source of comfort. A soft toy they associate with their loved one, or a precious stone they can hold and feel when they have big feelings.
#5: Listen or watch
Consider bringing your loved one in with music, TV or films this Kirihimete / Christmas.
Music can open us up to the full force of our emotions. If this feels manageable, listen to a song or piece of music they loved or that’s connected with them. Be with the emotions that come up. Then take a break.
If snuggling up on the couch is the right thing for you and your whānau / family this year, think about watching a film or TV show they enjoyed or that reminds you of them.
#6: Share memories
Sharing a memory – serious or funny – of your loved one is a way to bring them in at Kirihimete / Christmas. If it feels too raw, just try mentioning their name. On some days, that’s enough.
Looking at photos and videos can bring up powerful memories and emotions – it might be the right thing for you and your family, but don’t feel pressure to do so if it feels like too much this year.
If your tamariki / kids want to engage with memories of their loved one, consider gathering some photos, notepaper, pens, boxes or craft materials. Give them the opportunity to write messages to the person who has died, or create a memory box of precious things and thoughts.
#7: Hug it out
Spend quality time with family. If you’re with extended family or friends, make sure they’re sensitive to your immediate family’s needs.
If tamariki lose the plot with the inevitable tiredness / over-excitement / emotions of the day, put your arms around them.
Consider setting up a quiet corner or tent – a place they can go if they’re overwhelmed.
#8: Treat yourself
When we’re grieving, we often feel like we don’t deserve anything nice or special because our loved one will be missing out. That can be particularly hard for parents who’s child has died.
But you are here, and your wellbeing matters. Think of something you’ve been wanting to do or try, and haven’t had the opportunity. If possible, treat yourself to it this Christmas.
If there’s something your tamariki or other immediate family members would enjoy or find helpful, talk together about whether you can make it happen this year.
#9: Donate in their name
It can feel really hard not to be able to give your loved one a gift at Kirihimete / Christmas. Helping others in your loved one’s name can bring some comfort and relief. Consider making a donation or helping out with a charity.
This doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Pop a can of food or a kids’ toy into the donation bin at the supermarket when you’re out shopping. Send if off with your loved one in mind.
#10: Send a message
Christmas can feel like the closing of the year that’s been, before you move into the new year. It can feel like you’re leaving your loved one behind as life moves on.
Either alone or with your family, write a message to your loved one. If you’re at the beach or near a lake or river, pop your messages into a bottle and send it off. Or, collect messages in a Christmas stocking.
Talk to your family – do you want to keep your messages private? Or are they read out on Christmas day. Do whatever feels right for you.
#11: Bring the light in
A candle on the table or a bonfire on the beach – the presence of a flame can symbolise the memory of the person who is no longer with you. It can encourage reflection and moments of stillness. Consider surrounding yourself with light this Christmas Eve.
#12: Lighten the load
Grief doesn’t take a holiday, and it is exhausting. Be kind to yourself and take time out if you need to. Let tamariki know that you'll all be looking out for each other. Share your big feelings with each other when possible. Laugh and cry together if you can. Give yourself permission to not be ok. Give yourself permission to feel joy or to laugh if that’s what the day brings.