How to cope at Christmas: Priory experts on handling grief and loneliness over the festive season

Everyone experiences the pain of bereavement, and the struggle to reconcile the conflicting emotions that come with it; sadness, anger, frustration and exhaustion are all normal.

Loneliness too is endemic. These acutely distressing feelings may lessen and change as time passes, but there is little doubt that anniversaries and holidays can sharpen the pain.  The pandemic has underlined feelings of loneliness and loss for everyone, and this Christmas, many will be dealing with sudden and unexpected loss, as well as feeling the grief of losses of past years, and an acute sense of ‘being apart’ and ‘aloneness’.

Dr Andrew Iles, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, has expertise in supporting people who have been bereaved. He says; “Christmas, for many bereaved people, will always be the most difficult time of year, and, sadly, often becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Although birthdays and anniversaries may be an agonising reminder of the loss of a loved one, the pain of missing a loved one at Christmas can be overwhelming.

“The unavoidable pressure at Christmas to be ‘merry’ means that there is often no ‘escape’ for grief.  It can lead to feelings of intense loneliness and isolation.  For some people, bereavement leaves someone completely alone, but even for those who still have the support and love of friends and family, loneliness and isolation may endure.”

Dr Natasha Bijlani, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton agrees; “Coping with bereavement around Christmas – especially this Christmas – is especially tough. It is very different from grieving a private anniversary or birthday at another time of year as we are surrounded by festive lights and decorations everywhere, with cheery advertisements in the media, and Christmas songs blasting on the radio.

“To compound this, there seems to be no escape for those who might prefer to spend time in sombre reflection of their loved one.

“For those who are lonely, the feelings of not being around loved ones, and the sound of silence, can be overwhelming.”

The Samaritans (the UK-wide charity providing a free listening service for anyone in need of someone to talk to, 24/7, by calling 116 123) regularly reports record levels of calls during December – around half a million across the month, peaking at over 10,000 on Christmas Day. Among the main issues raised by callers to the Samaritans on December 25 itself is bereavement.

Dr Bijlani says: “All of us experience bereavement and loneliness in different ways and need to find what helps us best. For those bereaved who still have caring responsibilities, the idea of having a choice in how to handle Christmas can sometimes seem self-indulgent or unfeasible.

“The notion of ‘cancelling Christmas’ – however much you may want to – is often not an option if you have children. Many parents will instinctively feel obliged to celebrate Christmas as usual, but it can be very distressing trying to suppress your sadness. Likewise, if you are on your own, you may feel excluded, lost and unable to look ahead with any sense of purpose or optimism.

“Kind and thoughtful people are likely to offer help, even if it is remotely this year, and you should not feel guilty at all about accepting whatever they offer. If you are a parent, have age-appropriate conversations with your children about bereavement and enable them to cope with their individual loss as best you can, while dealing with your own feelings.”

To help navigate Christmas, whether suffering from a recent or longer-term loss of a loved one, Dr Bijlani suggests six ways of helping you through:

  • Think about putting a Christmas tree up in honour and celebration of your loved one and in recognition of how you have taken steps to cope – even if they are small ones. Make it a tree full of memories to celebrate the role your loved one played in your life, and their presence in it.
  • Keeping a journal also helps you to process and express emotions
  • Reach out and help others if you feel up to it. Helping others has the added benefit of making you feel better, as well as offering a powerful distraction, and sometimes some perspective. If you feel lonely, planning structure to your days by volunteering can help you to cope over the Christmas period. Try to include other activities, such as exercise and just taking walks, if you don’t feel up to anything else. Getting outside is key for your mental health
  • Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help if you can’t cope with the overwhelming negative emotions of your bereavement. There is help available, including telephone and online support (such as via The Samaritans) as well as bereavement counselling which you can access via your GP, or privately via online therapy or at Priory’s high street clinics or its hospitals. The NHS also suggests contacting a support organisation such as Cruse Bereavement Care, or calling them on 0808 808 1677. Bereavement counselling is advised if you are struggling to come to terms with your loss, especially if you believe the mental and emotional effects of a person’s death is affecting your ability to function during the day
  • If you are working, you may want to talk to your boss about how you are feeling and access any support that might be available through your company by way of Employee Assistance Programmes, so you can retreat for a brief period if you are feeling overwhelmed. Your medical insurance may offer you access to a therapist who can help you navigate your way through
  • None of us can predict the future, but don’t dwell on the past. Distract yourself as much as possible. Grief does not have a timetable so try not to make major financial or other decisions until you feel settled in yourself

Helplines:

Mind

MindInfoline: 0300 123 3393

mind.org.uk

The Mix

Helpline: 0808 808 4994

themix.org.uk

The Silver Line

Helpline: 0800 4 70 80 90

thesilverline.org.uk

The Silver Line is the confidential, free helpline for older people across the UK

Age UK

Advice Line: 0800 678 1602

ageuk.org.uk

Age Scotland

Free Helpline: 0800 12 44 222

Way – Widowed and Young

National charity in the UK for men and women aged 50 or under who have lost their partner, the peer-to-peer support group is run by volunteers who have also lost someone close to them at a young age

www.widowedandyoung.org.uk/

Griefcast

Award-winning podcast featuring ‘funny people’ talking about death and grief. Guests include actress Olivia Williams, comedian David Baddiel and BBC presenter Fi Glover

cariadlloyd.com/griefcast

RVS (Royal Voluntary Service)

Call: 0845 608 0122

royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk

The Samaritans

Tel: 116 123

samaritans.org

Campaign to End Loneliness

campaigntoendloneliness.org.uk and their tips

U3A (University of the Third Age)

u3a.org.uk

Find your local U3A

U3A is a UK-wide movement which brings together people in their ‘third age’ to develop their interests and continue their learning in a friendly and informal Covid-safe environment.

Author: Editorial Team

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