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Coping with Grief at Christmas

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Christmas is a period dedicated to spending time with family, friends, and cherished ones. However, for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one, this time can be particularly challenging and emotionally charged.

A multitude of reminders amplifies the sense of absence, and witnessing others revel in joy can intensify feelings of isolation. Amidst the celebrations, this season may prove to be exceptionally challenging when someone dear is absent. Unpredictable bouts of tears, frustration directed at those nearby, or lingering anxiety about navigating emotions may surface. It's crucial to recognise that such reactions are entirely normal in the aftermath of losing a loved one.

Why does grief become more challenging during Christmas?

Several factors contribute to the heightened difficulty of grief during the Christmas period.

Initially, the pervasive holiday cheer can be overwhelming. The ever-present reminders of joy and happiness create a stark contrast for those who may not share in the festive spirit.

Additionally, the recollection of past Christmases spent with a loved one can intensify the emotional challenge of facing the season without them.

Practically, the cold weather and early darkness limit opportunities for outdoor activities that contribute to mental well-being. For people grappling with seasonal depression, the winter months can exacerbate emotional struggles, compounding the challenges of grief.

Consider the following tips for navigating grief during the Christmas season:

Give some thought to what you want to do

Give thought to your plans if you've experienced a loss and are apprehensive about the approaching Christmas season. Reflect on your intentions for the weeks ahead and identify the people you'd like to spend time with during this period.

It's essential not to succumb to the pressure of maintaining a typical Christmas routine if it doesn't resonate with you. While adhering to familiar celebrations might offer solace, it's crucial to recognise that everyone copes differently after a loss. Plan a Christmas that aligns with your comfort and grant yourself the freedom to pursue activities that resonate with your emotions.

If you find the holiday season challenging, it's well within your rights to step away from customary traditions and rituals until you feel prepared to resume them. Acknowledge that all emotions, be they sadness, joy, or any other, demand energy. Given the unpredictability of your feelings, practice self-compassion and avoid over-exertion. Integrate breaks into your schedule, including moments of solitude, walks, or quiet moments with a cup of tea, to navigate hectic days.

Release any guilt associated with perceived obligations, and understand that it's acceptable to not feel okay during Christmas, a particularly challenging time for those grieving. With festive tunes in every store, cards arriving in the mail, and nostalgic TV shows airing, it can be challenging to escape the holiday atmosphere. Allow yourself to experience tears, recognising their significance in the grieving process. Despite fears of an uncontrollable outpouring, know that the tears will subside, potentially leaving you with a sense of relief.

Share your decisions openly

After contemplating your approach to the Christmas period, consider being transparent with those in your inner circle. Engaging in conversations with friends and family about your emotions and plans can facilitate their support in a manner that acknowledges and respects your grief.

Recognise your emotions

It's completely acceptable to experience sadness, anger, or even a sense of numbness throughout the Christmas period. Grief can be an intense and overpowering experience, potentially dampening your inclination to take part in festive activities. Instead of attempting to suppress these emotions, allow yourself to acknowledge them and grant the necessary time for processing. If finding solace in the company of others brings comfort, seek out companionship and support. However, if being around people exacerbates your grief, don't hesitate to take a step back from the festivities.

Explore alternative ways to celebrate

Take the time to plan in advance how you intend to mark the occasion. You might not feel inclined to celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense, or you may discover that adhering to some familiar holiday customs is the most meaningful way to provide support to your family and honour the memory of your loved one. Prioritise what feels right for you, and resist any external pressure to engage in activities that make you uncomfortable. Embrace the flexibility to celebrate in the New Year or choose a different date that aligns better with your preferences.

Blending Past and Present Traditions

For many people, Christmas is intertwined with cherished traditions connected to memories of the person they are mourning. In instances where replicating these traditions exactly may not be possible, it's common to feel a sense of sadness.

To navigate this challenging period, take a thoughtful approach to these traditions and their significance for both yourself and those around you. While you may choose to stick to familiar customs, don't hesitate to modify existing ones or introduce new practices.

Establishing fresh traditions can be particularly beneficial for children in the family who may be grappling with their own challenges. Creating new ways to commemorate the person you've lost can foster a sense of unity within the family. Consider the following examples:

  • Craft or purchase a Christmas ornament or bauble as a tribute to those who have passed. If a photograph seems overwhelming, opt for a ribbon in their favourite colour or a sentimental object.

  • Display the person's stocking or create one in their memory, allowing friends and family to fill it with cards, messages, or letters. Decide as a family whether to share these sentiments aloud or keep them private.

  • Install a small Christmas tree or memory wreath in your home in honour of the departed person. Decorate it with their favourite colours, photographs, meaningful objects, or messages.

  • Create a paper chain, with each link bearing a message or memory of the person you lost.

  • Purchase a large candle in their honour and light it during moments of reflection and remembrance.

  • Make a charitable donation in their name to a cause they would have supported.

  • Set a place at the dinner table for the absent person or raise a toast to them during the Christmas meal.

  • Decorate their headstone or plaque on Christmas Day.

  • Include a representation of the departed person through an object or symbol in your annual family Christmas photograph, if applicable.

Discover ways to honour your loved one's memory

This might involve engaging in a quiet conversation with the person you've lost, whether internally or vocally, visiting their grave, or revisiting a location that held significance for them. These acts can be undertaken individually or in the company of friends or family. Sharing photos or memories can serve to unite those involved in commemorating the individual who has passed.

Surround yourself with a supportive circle

Allocate time to be with friends or family who comprehend the emotions you're experiencing. These people could be acquainted with the person you miss or share their own journey of grief. Finding solace in a group setting can provide collective strength in coping with your sorrow. If you haven't explored this avenue yet, consider participating in a grief support group. Doing so will enable you to engage in festive activities within a community that empathises with your situation.

Prioritise your well-being

This time of year can be challenging, so ensure you attend to your physical and emotional needs. Maintain a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, and prioritise sufficient sleep. Steer clear of alcohol and drugs, as they can exacerbate the challenges of grief. Prioritising your physical health serves as a foundation for supporting your mental well-being.

Although the season's dark evenings and cold weather may pose obstacles to regular exercise, consider exploring new activities such as swimming or gym workouts.

While the festive period may tempt increased alcohol consumption, it's crucial to recognise that relying on alcohol or recreational drugs offers only temporary relief. If you find yourself turning to substances to cope, seeking help may be a necessary step.

Strive to maintain a consistent routine

The holiday season might interrupt your usual schedule, potentially making self-care more challenging. However, maintaining regular sleep and meal patterns whenever possible can have a positive impact. Engaging in activities like spending time with friends and family or volunteering for the day are simple yet effective ways to support yourself during this time.

Take a break from social media

The holiday season often floods social media with cheerful photos and memories, potentially challenging for those in the midst of grief. It's crucial to bear in mind that people tend to share only the positive parts of their lives online, so avoid comparing your situation to the curated content you encounter. If the abundance of holiday cheer becomes overwhelming, don't hesitate to disconnect and take a break. This also shields you from distressing "memory" prompts on platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Pause Christmas movies and TV shows

Feeling surrounded by images of joyful family celebrations can be challenging. If it becomes overwhelming, consider stepping away from the television and taking a breather outdoors.

Talk to someone

If you’re struggling to deal with grief over Christmas, you can call the Cruse Bereavement Helpline on 0808 808 1677. Or you can message a grief counsellor using the CruseChat service


Sally Edwards

Fully qualified counsellor, psychotherapist and trauma therapist based in Orpington, Kent

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

My specialism is on the impacts of trauma, from events such as childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and emotional abuse, accidents, violence, serious illness, and financial trauma (redundancy and bankruptcy). But I work with clients with many other life challenges and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, OCD behaviours, PTSD, self-harm, and eating issues.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, Biggin Hill, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley


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