Insights into grief at Christmas from a psychotherapist
Nicola Jackson, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist for Kenzie’s Gift says:
“The most important thing for helping tamariki / children (and ourselves) to be with grief at Christmas time is to create space for it within loving relationships. When tamariki have had the experience of grieving with someone, and being observed and thought about in their grief, at their own pace, they develop the internal capacity to bear really difficult, intense feelings associated with their loss.
“To help you prepare for Christmas, start having conversations with tamariki about it. Explain that it might be different this year and that you’re having lots of different feelings about Christmas and that you imagine they are too.
“You can also give them options around Christmas that are ok for you too, like a change of scenery by going to a holiday house or beach, seeing relatives or just keeping it small.
“Keep in mind that we know tamariki need a break from the intensity of grief. Some tamariki may want ‘time off’ and a ‘normal’ Christmas. That’s ok - you can give them permission to do that.
“Finally, consider what different siblings may need and perhaps have a plan that will meet each of their needs individually. For example, one of your tamariki might go to a relative's house on Christmas Day for a time and one may not.”
A note from Kenzie’s Gift founder Nic about facing Kirihimete / Christmas alone
“Sadly, some parents separate after the death of their child which means that come Kirihimete / Christmas time, some of us can face it alone when sharing custody.
“Every second Kirihimete / Christmas, I didn’t have my son Conor and was completely on my own. I couldn’t face Kirihimete / Christmas get-togethers without either of my tamariki.
“I planned road trips and adventure holidays every Kirihimete / Christmas Conor wasn't with me, so I didn’t have to be confronted with lots of happy families. I enjoyed being in the outdoors amongst nature and getting away from everything. I felt connected to Kenzie in amongst the vastness of the outdoors and I enjoyed the escapism from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
“This worked for me. And I always planned ahead, I certainly didn't wait for the day to arrive and find myself alone with my thoughts.
“My suggestion is to have a plan on how you will spend Kirihimete / Christmas when you don't have your tamariki. You might like to come up with a tradition for those alternate Christmases - like volunteering at the City Mission on Christmas Day, hosting Kirihimete / Christmas for others who are without family, visiting someplace special or deciding to experience something new (I have been known to sky dive over Kirihimete / Christmas!). Do what feels right for you.”
How to cope with 12 days of Kirihimete / Christmas grief
There’s no right or wrong way to do Kirihimete / Christmas when living with grief. Anticipation can sometimes be harder than the actual day. Remember there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to coping. What works for one whānau, may not for another.
Have a plan. A plan can help ease tension and stress, especially for the days leading up to Kirihimete / Christmas - they can be tougher than the day itself.
Think about things like:
- Where you’ll be.
- What you’ll eat.
- What you’ll do.
- Who you’ll be with.
- How you’ll mark the day and your loved one’s memory.
Talk as a whānau to understand how everyone is feeling.
Some families find it helpful to continue their established Kirihimete / Christmas traditions. Others might choose to create something new that incorporates memories of their loved one, like making their favourite dish; making or buying a special decoration for the tree; framing treasured pictures of them; or incorporating their favourite Kirihimete / Christmas activity, game, music or film into the day.
Tamariki particularly like to have the person’s favourite lollies on special days. It’s important not to assume you know what your tamariki want to do - ask them.
An idea is to have a stocking where friends and whānau can put 'memories' of their loved one in. Have pens and paper available where you can encourage guests on the lead up to and on Kirihimete / Christmas to write their memories, moments that made them think of/miss your loved one, or words of encouragement and appreciation to other whānau members which can be read on Christmas Day.
Ahead of the day, discuss that it might be a mixed bag.
You can't guarantee it’ll be ok and fun - it might be tough, it might be fun or it might be a mixture of both. Whatever it is, it's ok because together you'll manage it.
It’s also a good idea to talk with those you’ll be spending Kirihimete / Christmas with and let them know your thoughts, ideas and plans for the day. For example, do you want to include some time to do a tribute to your loved one, like:
- Sharing a special message.
- Sharing a memorial gift.
- Giving gifts of remembrance for your guests to take home.
Having a plan may help.
Remember it's still ok to laugh and have fun.
Create opportunities for tamariki to experience joy and laughter during Kirihimete Kirihimete / Christmas while remembering their loved one.
Tamariki may find it hard to talk about their loved one and how they are feeling. Perhaps setting up a memorial corner, or tent, a quiet place they can go if they’d like, with photos, notepaper, pens, boxes, craft materials, etc., where they can write and post messages in a memory box.
You could also include some of their loved one’s favourite things (like lollies, photos, trinkets) so they can add to their memory boxes if they’d like. There is no expectations or pressure for them to use it, but the opportunity is there if they want to.
Change your plans, depending on how you feel.
Make plans as a whānau, but also give yourselves permission to change your minds, and most importantly, be gentle and kind to yourselves.
This may include deciding not to do Kirihimete / Christmas this year, or giving yourselves permission not to do the things that feel too hard: writing cards, attending parties, putting up the tree, etc.
Do things your way and be guided by what feels right for your whānau. Give yourself permission to do this, and let people know this might happen.
“Thank you for the invitation. We find Christmas hard, so if we’re finding it tough on Christmas Day, please don't be offended if I message to say we can’t come. If it’s too challenging for us, we might decide to spend the day alone as a family.”
If you need to cancel a Kirihimete / Christmas or party invitation because it feels too hard that day, cancel it.
Show your tamariki how to deal with a range of emotions.
Parents can show their tamariki how they deal with a range of emotions, from experiencing the joy through to taking time out when sadness comes and rejoining the festivities when feeling better. Try not to hide how you’re feeling as that can make your tamariki feel like they need to hide their emotions too.
It’s ok to laugh and cry together, as needed.
Take time out if you need to.
Let your tamariki know that you'll all be looking out for each other and it’s ok to take time out if you need it. Encourage and empower them to have some alone time if they’re struggling.
Hug it out.
If (when!) tamariki lose the plot because tiredness / over-excitement / emotions, instead of telling them off, put your arms around them. Reassure them, tell them you've got them and it's all ok.
Acknowledge and listen.
Want to support someone who's grieving at Kirihimete / Christmas? Acknowledge it's a hard time ("I can't imagine what you're going through") and offer a listening ear ("If you want to talk about [their loved one], I'd love to listen and chat").
Continue old traditions or create new ones.
You find it helpful to continue old family traditions or you might choose to create a new family tradition, like baking a special Kirihimete / Christmas cake together. Other traditions you might like to include are:
- Visiting their grave or the place where their ashes were scattered and placing a Kirihimete / Christmas card there.
- Asking friends and family to write special messages to your loved one on star-shaped cut-outs and hanging them up on ribbon around the home or on a tree.
- Asking people for their memories of the person who died – you could begin to compile their ‘life story’. Or you could ask them questions about them: ‘What was the worst or best present they ever gave you?’ ‘What was the most embarrassing thing they did?’
- Eating their favourite Kirihimete / Christmas food – fish and chips? Pavlova? BBQ?
- Creating a playlist of their favourite music.
Look after yourself.
On the day itself, remember to look after yourself. If things get too much, find a way to take a breather. Give yourself permission to not be ok but equally to have fun and laugh.
Make this your day. You are special. Do what you feel is right for you and your whānau. Be around people you want to spend time with. Maybe light a Kirihimete / Christmas candle for your loved one and let their light shine.
We’re only limited by our imagination and creativity. There is no right or wrong.
Watch our grief at Christmas webinar
In this webinar, Nic Russell, founder of Kenzie's Gift and bereaved māmā, talks to child and adolescent psychotherapist, Nicola Jackson, on coping with grief at Christmas. It’s full of helpful advice and tips to help you and your whānau during this difficult time.