Ghosts at the Christmas Table

'Tis the season for giving — but looking after yourself matters most in grief.

Posted Dec 14, 2018

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. For some people, anyway.

Christmas represents something unique for each of us, bringing up massively varying responses in different people. For every ugly-sweater-loving, fruitcake-munching fanatic blasting carols in the kitchen, there’s a self-proclaimed Grinch itching to wash out their ears after every "Ho Ho Ho."

And that’s before we throw in the very large and unpleasantly heavy spanner labeled "grief" into the works.

Amongst other things, Christmas represents family and togetherness — so the ragged-edged hole that death leaves behind can cause serious chaos within grieving families. Right at the time we’re all "supposed" to be creating perfect, tinsel-framed memories with our families, someone is missing.

In my own bereaved family, each of us had the cracks in our hearts pulled a little wider during Christmas. Not only by what we had lost, but unintentionally by each other — which I later leaned happens in the majority of families who lose a member. Each person becomes too preoccupied with their own pain to offer meaningful support to the others, and different ways of coping can rub against other family members where they’re already raw.

Myself, my parents, my siblings, and my grandparents each experienced a powerful longing for a particular kind of day, and none of them matched. I wanted no part in spending Christmas as we always had, certain that what was missing would be the only thing I could see — like a tooth knocked out of a face. The idea of my absence clashed horribly with another family member’s longing to be surrounded by all her remaining family. A third wanted to create a totally new tradition — go somewhere else, eat different food, anything to avoid the old reminders.

One family member coped by pretending nothing had changed, wanting to forget "for just one day." Another found that horribly upsetting. Some of us wanted to openly talk about our lost loved one and share stories. Others really wanted their space to grieve quietly, and not feel overwhelmed and triggered by painful memories. Still others were so angry over the death that these discussions alone brought up explosions of rage.

Not one of our reactions was "wrong." No emotional response to grief ever is. But not one of us could have the Christmas we wanted without causing pain to other people whom we loved deeply. Balancing all our needs became an impossible knife edge to walk, and each of us was wounded in the attempt.

So what does all this mean for you, grieving person reading these words, full of fear or sadness or resignation or angry cynicism?

It means your job this Christmas is to survive.

It’s well-known to those of us working in mental health that moods tend to darken, and alcohol misuse creeps up markedly in the lead-up to Christmas. Worse, psychiatric admissions, self-harming behavior, suicide attempts, and even heart failure increase after the carols and custard are over for another year.

It’s a high-risk time, so take care of yourself as well as you can. Choose the least painful, least self-destructive way of getting through the day you can, and give yourself permission to do it. Choose the path of least pain, whatever that might be for you.

You’re allowed to feel horrible. Pasting a smile on your pain isn’t just a denial of yourself and your experience, it’s an act that takes energy that you need to get through the day. If it’s what others in your family want, that’s understandable. But like all the air safety videos say, you need to put your own mask on before you can help anyone else. 

You’re also allowed to feel OK. If you find yourself smiling, laughing, or even just swept away in the pure indulgent bliss of comfort food — it’s all right. It doesn’t mean you love your lost one any less, it doesn’t make you heartless, it doesn’t mean you don’t care deeply. It means that you are alive, and that as a living, feeling being, little pockets of joy and forgetting are not only normal, but vital in the mourning process. Try to let yourself land gently when the moment ends, and the weight of the loss sweeps your feet out from under you once again. 

Finally, you’re allowed to not feel at all. Perhaps the way your mind copes is through numbness and shutoff, and there’s nothing abnormal about that (as disturbing as it may feel). Again, it doesn’t mean you’re an emotionless monster. It means that your brain’s doing some important protective work at the moment.

You can’t have what you want above all else this Christmas. You can’t rewind time, undo death, say the things you wish you’d said, or unsay what you did. But you can give a very important gift to yourself — permission to do what you need to.

Whether that means sharing, silence, solitude, old traditions, new ideas, crying, raging, tentatively smiling, or simply too much trifle.

References

Powell, K. A., & Matthys, A. (2013). Effects of suicide on siblings: uncertainty and the grief process. Journal of Family Communication, 13(4), 321-339.

Reedman L. A., Allegra, J. R., & Cochrane, D. G. (2008). Increases in heart failure visits after Christmas and New Year's Day. Congestive Heart Failure, 14(6), 307-9.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2011). The Christmas effect on psychopathology. Innovations in Clininical Neuroscience, 8(12),10-13.

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