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Coping with special occasions without a loved one

24 Jan 2023 | 3 min read time

Facing the first New Year, birthday, or any other special day without a loved one is hard. So many of our cherished memories are tied to the times we have spent together and, when a much loved family member or friend is no longer with us, the loss can feel even harder to bear.

While time doesn’t erase grief, the longer we have been learning to cope with our loss, the less intense feelings can be. Conversely, the first time you have to face Christmas after a bereavement can be particularly hard, with expectations for us to be happy and excited to see family and friends when all we feel is sadness and a sense of loss.

It is important to remember that everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to cope with special occasions, but here are some suggestions that may help you to cope:

1. Give yourself permission to continue grieving

The fact that the rest of the world seems to be full of festive spirit doesn’t cancel out what you are feeling. Times like Christmas, New Year or anniversaries can be an emotional time without the added upset of a loss, so be accepting of your feelings and feel free to put yourself first and step back from other people’s celebrations if you need to.

2. Forget about the celebrations for a while

Grief doesn’t work to a calendar and there are no holidays from the way you are feeling. Your first Christmas or birthday without someone may not be any more upsetting than the first time you go to a certain shop without them. Take as much time away from the celebrations as you need. Have a bath, read a book, go for a walk; do something that doesn’t remind you what time of year it is.

3. Be with people that can support you

Grief can commonly leave us feeling lethargic with physical symptoms, from insomnia to loss of appetite. Emotionally, we may not know how we're going to feel from one minute to the next. If you are going to be with people over this occasion, it is important that they understand that you may not be ‘at your best’ and are supportive, however you feel throughout the day.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Talk to the people that care about you, friends and family, about the way you are feeling. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can help your loved ones have a better understanding of how you feel. It can also help your own understanding of what you are feeling about facing this day without your loved one.

If you don’t have anyone close to you that you would feel comfortable sharing your feelings with, contact a bereavement support group or counsellor.

5. Introduce new traditions

During special occasions, we often cling to family traditions, from putting up the Christmas decorations to a special birthday meal. Familiar rituals can be comforting for some people, sparking memories and reminding us of good times. But for others, doing things differently distracts from the pain of loss.

6. Remember the person you have lost

Just because someone has died doesn’t mean you no longer have a relationship with their memory; make time to reflect and remember. Raise a glass, light a candle, or look back at family photographs. Some people write letters or cards to their loved ones to tell them how much they miss them, to share the events of the year and their hopes for the future.

7. Do something positive

Lots of people find holidays like Christmas or New Year difficult, and showing kindness to someone else who might be struggling helps focus us back on the good in the world. From doing something nice for a neighbour to volunteering for a charity, there are many ways to show kindness on these occasions. You could even make a donation or sign up for a charity event in the name of your loved one.

8. Don’t feel guilty

You might feel guilty about not joining in the celebrations, or asking for things to be done differently. But after a bereavement, you are allowed to slow things down. Equally, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself enjoying moments within an occasion: you are allowed to feel happiness, even when you are grieving.

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