Christmas thoughts for those who are grieving

Even during the darkest and harshest of winters, there is still beauty to be found – in the bright red of a holly berry amongst the grey, the glow of Christmas tree lights glimpsed through windows at dusk, or the spectacular frost patterns on our cars on a cold morning which we pause to admire before scraping them off the windscreen.

Likewise, the dark place that grief can take us to also has some treasures to be found – sparkles of beauty in remembering the joy and the colour that the ones we miss so much brought to our lives, kind words or actions from others, or the bright respite that comes from playing with children or animals.

The festive season has well and truly burst into our lives like the brightly lit Coca-Cola truck, honking its air horn. Christmas is a celebration that can come with a not-so-subtle expectation for everyone to be happy and joyful. Shopping is done to a soundtrack of upbeat Christmas songs, TV is full of images of families having fun together, and the feeling of enforced gaiety can be tricky to navigate when you are bereaved.

Layers of happy Christmas memories that have built up over the years bring a poignancy when a key person is no longer here to share them. We can feel that we’re walking an emotional tightrope at times when we’re happily sharing the festivities one moment, and feeling very sad the next.

One of the dubious benefits of being human is that we get to experience emotional dissonance – holding opposing feelings at the same time. In the midst of the horrors of war, we find extraordinary acts of solidarity and support. In hardship, we see acts of utter generosity, and in grief, we access a whole new depth of love. It can be hard, but it also can be sublimely beautiful.

The theme for this year’s recent National Grief Awareness Week is ‘to open conversations and normalise grief’. It seems a simple enough brief and yet when you are bereaved, you maybe start to realise that opening conversations and normalising grief is quite the task.

In this country, even in the 21st century, there are things that remain very difficult to talk about without getting very ‘British stiff upper lip’ and awkward. There’s an old maxim that you shouldn’t talk about sex, politics or religion in polite company – and yet I suspect many people would rather discuss any of these (particularly the latter two!) in preference to engaging with the intimacy and rawness of somebody’s grief.

Indeed, many families I’ve worked with tell me about how people have gone out of their way to avoid them for fear of not knowing what to say, leaving them feeling isolated and a bit of a social pariah. Even in some families and friend groups who have experienced the same loss, the fear of upsetting others can shut a potentially healing conversation down.

Or else, there’s the shutting down of conversation in another way – the well-meant but horribly unhelpful platitude: ‘they’re in a better place now’, ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘at least you’ve still got (your other parent/children/friends)’

People often grope around in the dark for what to say but of course, there is nothing they can say that will make it feel better. What can shine a light however is to ask how you are, to say your loved one’s name, to share a happy memory or to ask you about them. You’ve not forgotten about them after all – their name is in your heart at all times, and to have that name on your lips or to hear it on others’ can affirm and reassure you that their light is still with us.

We can help to start the conversational revolution. Tell people who you are remembering, and ask them if they are remembering someone. Ask questions about each other’s loved ones and enjoy introducing yours to a new person. Let their names and their stories be all around us just as they are still all around us, especially at times like Christmas when they will very much be with you.

How will you bring your person’s light into your Christmas this year? Perhaps it will be by hanging their favourite bauble in pride of place at the front of the tree, talking about them around the table with your family, honouring one of their Christmas traditions, having a tinsel bedecked photo of them in the heart of it all, using their failsafe method to prepare the sprouts, writing them a letter in a Christmas card or making a donation to a charity they were passionate about in their name.

I wish you the Christmas that you need this year. Treat yourselves and each other with gentleness, keep your loved one’s name on your lips, and may you find beauty amidst all that unfolds over the festive season and beyond.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter: “Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

(These words are taken and lightly adapted from the Christmas Memorial I conducted at HD Tribe, Worthing, on 6th December 2022.)