Grief and the Festive Season

Published: 16 Dec 2020

Christmas is a time when we reach out to others. A time of giving, a time for family, a time for friends and loved ones. 

Light Up A Life

Christmas Past:

From a faith and historical point of view Christmas commemorates the birth of the Christ child. The birth of a child usually generates great joy and celebration. The Christmas birth story is no different as it is celebrated throughout the world by many people.

On another level, Christmas is a time when we reach out to others. It is a time of giving, a time for family, a  time for friends and loved ones, a time to be together, a time for homecomings, traditions and a time to reminisce on Christmas past.  

As children we will never forget the magic and wonder of Santa Claus, who brought and continues to bring unrestrained happiness to children and the expectation and excitement he brought to our households. Likewise we think of Christmas music; the twinkling trees and decorations that illuminate our roads, towns and cities which bring warmth to our hearts in the coldest of winter days.

Christmas Present:

Christmas will be different as we live with Covid-19 which continues to place restrictions on how we live our lives. Unfortunately, this virus has brought its own measure of sadness to many families whose relatives have died.      

For these families and indeed for families whose children have died, Christmas may be a very painful time.

For some, it may be a task of 'getting through it' for others. The early arrival and ubiquitous build up of the season triggers, dread and anxiety. 

Recently bereaved families may wonder how will they survive Christmas. They may want to cancel it altogether. They may not know how they will feel until it arrives. This uncertainty may add to anxiety. This year they may not be in a position to travel or will be restricted in visiting family, due to current public health guidelines. This may also increase a sense of pain and isolation.

Bereaved families may decide to reduce their usual visits and may spend it quietly at home. Visiting some difficult family members or having visits from them can be postponed or time limited in order to reduce the stress of these encounters.

Bereaved parents have often revealed 'it is good to talk' to family members and close relatives about their plans for Christmas. Some parents informing their family and friends to include their deceased child’s name in Christmas   cards or in texts and to bring up their deceased child’s name in conversation. This can be welcomed by family and friends who may not know how to approach this. 

I have heard parents say they will check with their surviving children to ascertain how they want to spend Christmas. The siblings may wish for Christmas to carry on as before as it gives them a sense of normality. This can be painful for parents but comforting for the children.

A number of bereaved parents believe Christmas will never be the same as it once was, as their family structure has now changed. For others, they may ask themselves: 'Do we make an effort and put the Christmas tree up, decorate the  house, send cards, give presents or take a visit to town to see the lights'. It is each family’s choice, prerogative and circumstance as to how they will engage with Christmas.

Some plan the day itself while others allow it to take its own course. Parents should not feel pressured nor obligated to  celebrate Christmas especially if it becomes an overwhelming dread or burden. Some participate in festivities within their levels of comfort and at their own pace. They may wish to scale back the celebrations. There is no right nor   wrong way to celebrate it. It is your Christmas, you are in control.   

Nonetheless one parent once said: "It is one day but the season is an eternity."

In the end, the deceased child may have loved Christmas and often times this fact can sway a family in their decision to honour and memorialise their child by celebrating Christmas accordingly.

Christmas Rituals:

Bereaved parents have told how they have celebrated Christmas by bringing their deceased child’s memory alive through rituals. These rituals and symbolic actions can be powerful and bring comfort and healing. Each ritual is unique to your family; hanging a child’s favourite or new Christmas decoration on the tree, a special corner or space in the house dedicated to their child, a lighting candle for the Christmas season, a visit to their Child’s grave or placing their Child’s urn and photograph in a prominent place in the home.

Remembering is even more evident at Christmas and is even more healing for parents when they do so.              

Festive Season Consolations:

Bereaved parents sometimes spend time at Christmas with people who understand their situation. These may be neighbours or someone outside the family such as a work colleague. These people can be unknowingly therapeutic and nourishing in how they interact with bereaved parents. Understanding sympathetic people like these can be an oasis of respite for parents during the holiday season.

New Years festivities may also be a distressing time for bereaved parents, as they may not share the sentiments of a Happy New Year, which can often isolate and compound grief even more while moving further away from a child they may have recently lost. 

Again some thought and planning is needed to decide a strategy in negotiating New Years Eve whether to spend it with   family at home or with others, who will allow parents to be themselves whilst remembering their deceased child. The New Year on the contrary may bring with it a beginning of recovery for bereaved parents as their pain of grief eases gradually but slowly over time.

Despite the genuine fears that bereaved parents have about the festive period some have shared their wisdom and experience that have brought them and indeed others comfort. One family shared: "the festive season does pass and in an uncanny way it can bring its own parcels of comfort and consolation."

We can experience many feelings through different stages - upon hearing a song, receiving unexpected kindness from a stranger in a supermarket, reading an inspiring book, seeing a robin in their garden or catching a floating mysterious white feather, 'ordinary experiences' perhaps but they can bring a source of real peace and grace to broken hearts in an instant.

These spiritual comforts and consolations, can unexpectedly turn up in the lives of bereaved parents not just during the  festive season but at other times throughout the year. Please take care of yourselves and each other during this festive  season. 

Thomas Begley, Chaplain