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7 Strategies to Cope with Grief at Christmas

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for many people, it is far from the happiest season of all. For those grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with difficult life challenges such as divorce or illness, the holidays are not merry and bright. For all too many, they are bleak, lonely, and sad.

Dan Bobbit with his children.

The holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for closeness, relaxation, and joy. They can be overwhelming and stressful at the best of times, and they are even more so if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one (or your marriage or your health). The holidays can intensify feelings of loss and loneliness. Family gatherings and holiday celebrations are often painful reminders of all that you have lost.

There is so much pressure to be happy at Christmas. Commercials, music, and movies all push happiness and joy. Stores and restaurants are festively bedazzled with decorations to celebrate the season. Even a simple cup of coffee turns into a reminder that the holidays are near. And everyone, everywhere, is telling you to be of good cheer. Sometimes it’s all so overwhelming that you just want to yell, “I don’t have any cheer left, good or otherwise.”

In fact, I actually did mutter those very words to myself the first Christmas after my husband died.

We spent that first Christmas squashed into a 200-year-old rental house. All of our things were in storage, so I bought and borrowed a few ornaments in an attempt to make it seem and feel more festive. Still partially numb with grief, my main priority was making sure my kids had as good of a Christmas as possible, given the circumstances.

We were long settled into our new house by the time the second Christmas rolled around. I was totally unprepared for the tsunami of emotions that washed over me as I unpacked our Christmas decorations and ornaments for the first time since Dan died.

My Christmas spirit still hadn’t returned, but I was determined to recapture that cozy feeling I’d always had during the holidays. I threw myself into it with gusto. I spent days and days decorating, shopping, and baking. Every time I thought I was finished, I would think, “maybe, just a little bit more.”

But of course, a little bit more wasn’t enough. And it never would be. The truth was, no amount of decorations, gifts, or cookies were ever going to make Christmas feel the same again.

I believed that it was up to me to make Christmas perfect for everyone: for my kids, my in-laws, and my parents. I spent so much time worrying about making Christmas wonderful for everyone else that I neglected myself. I was physically exhausted and emotionally overwrought.

My job wasn’t to make Christmas perfect, it was to look after myself and my children. I was only one person trying to do the best I could. I needed to set priorities and establish boundaries, not just for the holidays.

If you are struggling with grief during the holidays, these seven tips may help you cope a little better:

  1. Give yourself permission to feel sadness and happiness.
    Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. It’s only natural that you will feel sadness during the holidays. How could you not? A big piece of your heart is missing. But it’s also equally okay to allow yourself to be happy at Christmas too. You are allowed to enjoy the holidays. Savour those little moments of joy as they come.
  2. Set limits.
    You are only one person; you can only do so much. You don’t have to do everything you used to do before. If you are having family visit at Christmas, delegate (which is something I sometimes struggle to do). Ask other people to help out with meals and holiday preparations.
  3. Be true to yourself.
    You know what is best for you. Don’t feel obligated to do things in order to please other people or because you are worried about what they might think of you if you don’t do them. Our grief is as unique as we are, and we all have to grieve (and heal) in our own way. What is comforting for one may not be comforting for another.
  4. Say no.
    You don’t have to participate in events or attend family gatherings if you are not up to it. If you find it overwhelming, don’t feel obligated to attend (or host). Many find comfort in being surrounded by lots of family; others do not. Sometimes you do feel lonelier in a crowd than you do on your own.
  5. Take care of You.
    You will be no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. You have to make time for you. Try not to overindulge in food and alcohol (a tall order on any holiday). Try to get enough rest, and don’t neglect your physical fitness. Make the time to get outside in the fresh air. It will help you cope with stress and grief better.
  6. Start new traditions.
    Christmas does not have to look exactly the same as it used to be. Because Christmas won’t be exactly the same as it once was. New holiday traditions are a positive way to start a new chapter in your life.
  7. Honour the memories.
    Memories of past holidays may be painful at first, but they are also a source of great comfort. Remember the person you’ve lost in a special way, such as by lighting a candle or hanging a memorial ornament.

This coming Christmas will be the sixth one since my husband died. It hasn’t been easy, but I have found joy in Christmas again. And so can you. It may not happen the first Christmas or even the second, but if you are kind to yourself and patient, you and Christmas joy will find each other again. And someday, you may even once again find yourself humming, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

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Monica Bobbitt

Monica was a military spouse for almost 21 years, until her husband was tragically killed in a LAV rollover during Ex Maple Resolve at CFB Wainwright in May 2014. Monica writes about her experiences as a military wife and widow in her blog, A Goat Rodeo, where she openly and honestly discusses what it's really like to be widowed and shares the wisdom she has learned as she continues to move forward with her life. She also shares her story with military members and their families at speaking events across the country.

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