A day before I wrote this blog post, I found out that sadly the grandfather of one of my best friends had just passed away.
It was exactly 19 years less a day after my own grandfather had passed away so it obviously reminded me a lot of our Christmas 19 years ago.
It also made me think of others who have lost a loved one at Christmas time.
I kept thinking about a Maltese family whose daughter recently lost her battle with meningitis. A friend of a friend and a young father who died of a heart attack a few days ago. A friend who received the terrible news on Christmas day morning a couple of years ago that her mother had been killed in a car accident. And unfortunately so many others.
Of course even if our loved ones would have passed away before Christmas time, the first Christmas without them is never easy.
Christmas traditions usually associated with joy can be painful reminders of the loss and the fact that our loved ones aren’t there to celebrate with us.
Celebrating without them can feel strange and even wrong, but they would surely want us to be celebrating and I like to believe that they too would be celebrating with us. (I always imagined my grandfather eating loads of mint Aero, his favourite chocolate, in heaven on Christmas day morning).
I’m definitely no expert on the subject, but based on my family’s experience of losing my grandfather at Christmas time and also of our first Christmases after the loss of other family members, here are the 11 tips I would give to anyone celebrating their first Christmas after losing a loved one.
1. It’s ok to tone down your celebrations.
Do whatever you feel comfortable with and whatever you feel like doing. It’s ok if you don’t feel up to sending Christmas cards this year or having friends over as you usually do.
Also keep in mind that you may find that Christmas is hard for you or not – maybe everything going on keeps your mind off the loss. We all grieve differently and we all experience life differently and there’s nothing wrong with that.
As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother really loved Christmas and always prepared a feast for us all on Christmas Day. So of course Christmas Day two days after my grandfather had passed away was hard. I remember that we still celebrated and had a nice day but as expected, things were slightly toned down.
2. And it’s also ok not to be as merry as usual – in fact it’s even ok to have a good cry.
You don’t have to feel that anyone is expecting anything from you. Do what feels right to you. And cry if you need to – no one will judge you for it.
3. You may find you want to spend some time alone.
It’s important to have space to grieve and some time alone can help.
4. But still try to do the things that you enjoy and surround yourself by the people you love.
Try to keep in mind that your loved one would want you to be happy and you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about laughing or having fun. It’s not disrespectful in any way and sometimes laughter can make it easier to cope.
Also, while as I said some time alone can help, remember that the support of other people you love is crucial at a time like this so do surround yourself by the people you love when you can and feel up to it.
5. If possible, try to open up to your loved ones about the way you’re feeling.
You might even find that you’re feeling similar things and that can really help you all.
6. And also speak about your loved one.
The year my grandfather passed away, I still remember my grandmother, mother and aunts managing to make each other and us smile through it all by relating stories and sharing happy memories.
7. Look after yourself.
It’s easy to be overcome by grief but try to keep in mind how important it is to look after yourself. Try to sleep and eat well as much as you can. Some gentle exercise can also be really helpful. And while it’s ok to have a few Christmas drinks, don’t try to numb the pain with alcohol as that will make things harder in the long run.
8. And reach out for help if you need it.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, be it practical support or psychological support. There are people available who can help and it’s important that you do reach out if you're finding difficulty coping.
9. Do something specific to honour your loved one.
Many people find that things like lighting a candle, looking at old photos, making a donation in their loved one’s name or even sharing stories and memories about them can really help.
10. Keep in mind that things will get better over time even if it doesn’t feel that way today.
I won’t say that next Christmas will be easy. In fact, while I love Christmas, I do believe that we always feel the absence of loved ones a bit more on Christmas Day. But I also believe that in time the pain does fade slightly even though it never goes away.
11. And finally be proud of yourself for doing so well on such a difficult day.
When Christmas is over, whether you would have stuck to your usual traditions or started new ones, celebrate the fact that you got through it and that you found moments of joy even though it was difficult.
From now on, you will be creating wonderful new memories each year without ever forgetting all the special times you shared with the one you miss.
Wishing you all the best. If you have recently experienced loss, may time ease the pain and may 2017 be filled with health, happiness, love and laughter.