Tips for coping with grief at Christmas time plus how to reach out to someone you know is feeling alone

Christmas can be a difficult time of year for those who have lost a loved one or are alone.

It's easy to look at Christmas movies, advertisements and displays and think, "My life doesn't look like that!"
And if you're going through a rough time, all of those happy Christmas images can exacerbate your negative feelings.
Age Concern's National Social Connection Adviser Louise Rees says it can be a particularly difficult time for elderly New Zealanders who find themselves isolated and alone.
"The message we're told is that this should be the happiest time of the year, where we're connecting with family, decorating together and having a BBQ on the beach. But in fact, it can be very far from our reality and really highlight that deficit between what we are experiencing and what we think we should be," says Louise.
In this second part of our series on Christmas loneliness, we explore how to form connections and end negative self-talk at Christmas as well as how to navigate grief during the holidays.

How to ease the pain of missing someone at Christmas

If you've lost a loved one, often you may find that you'd like to just sleep through December and wake up on January 2, without having to go through a heart-wrenching festive season.
Let's be honest, it will be a difficult time of year, but there are ways in which you can alleviate that pain, even just a little.
The most important thing to note is that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way of dealing with grief and getting through Christmas.
For some, it may feel right to carry on with Christmas as usual but with some new traditions to acknowledge their lost loved one. For others, the simple act of remembering their loved one − or even acknowledging that it's Christmas time − is all too painful and difficult.
There's no right way of feeling or behaving, and it's important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that your distress is completely normal.
Often the anticipation of pain on Christmas Day is a lot worse than the actual day itself, so treat yourself gently and with care in the build-up to the big day.
If you are feeling up to acknowledging a loved one who has passed away, here are a few things you could look at doing:
  • Light a special candle to acknowledge them – keep the flame going whenever you want to feel they are close, or make them a part of the process.
  • Leave a setting for them at the table. Was there a spot they always sat at? Maybe keep their spot free this year and acknowledge them in a toast.
  • Make their favourite dish. Did they always want creamy mashed potato with the meal? Don't leave it out this year – make it as a nod to them.
  • Give a gift to a child in need or donate to a charity in your loved one's name.

How to support someone grieving at Christmas

  • Say any of the following sentences: "At least you had him for all those years you did." "God needed another angel." "Don't be sad – at least he isn't suffering any more." "I know how you feel." "You're still sad? He died three years ago!"
  • Avoid them, or not send a Christmas card. Make sure you write to them and acknowledge their loss, while also sending your love and support.
  • Ask if they'd like to talk about their loved one. Often we worry that bringing up the subject, or saying their name, will upset the griever – but typically it's the exact opposite. Their loved one is likely on their mind, so they may want the chance to talk about them. They may not be ready to talk, but giving them the option is a caring gesture.
  • Communicate what would be helpful and unhelpful – would they rather you didn't talk about their loss this year? Would it be helpful if you cooked a meal for them? Could you drive and accompany them to a function they're worried about going to alone? Often we say to people, "Let me know what I can do to help", but in times of grief we're often too overwhelmed to respond. The tough part is, once we're out of that initial grieving period, we're more aware of what would help – but given the time that's passed we worry about asking for help. Keep checking in, to see what you can do!

Ending negative self-talk

Louise Rees says one of the most disastrous things about becoming isolated is that over time it can really undermine confidence.
This can make it difficult to form connections or accept opportunities to socialise.
"We need to be careful about self-talk – those negative thoughts we have," Louise says. "When people who are feeling lonely, isolated and low on self-esteem receive an invite, they can end up turning it down, thinking, 'Oh, they don't really want me there.' But the reality is, you were invited to that function for a reason. You were invited because the person wanted you to be there!"
Louise says it can be the same negative reasoning that talks people out of sending Christmas cards – thinking, 'Oh, they don't want to hear from me! I've got nothing to say!'
But, again, the reality is probably quite different. There are likely many people who would enjoy receiving a card from you.
"There could be someone who is in similar circumstances, who would be absolutely delighted to hear from you," Louise tells. "That card could really make their day."

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