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Surviving Christmas when it doesn't feel merry

Christmas & Memories

I'm generally one of these people who has the Christmas Tree up on either the last weekend of November or the first weekend of December. I enjoy decorating it with ornaments that remind me of places I've visited or special people who gave them to me. There are painted wooden ornaments with frayed ribbon my children made with their nan and pop when they were preschoolers (now adults). I have a Santa with a cotton wool beard that has become very stretched and thin over the years and a brightly coloured, out of shape tinsel lantern, both decorations from my childhood.

But Christmas is not always merry and bright, for a variety of reasons, with grief being one of them.


Special occasions have a way of reminding us more intensely of loved ones now deceased. If the loss is recent, the desire to celebrate might be non-existent and can even make someone feel angry that the world doesn't seem to know such a loss has occurred. If you have young children and are grieving, the thought of feeling like you have to 'make Christmas fun for the children' can be overwhelming and exhausting. This is normal and it is okay to feel grief during this time. Acknowledge it - grief is there because of love. The past couple of years have also seen more families than ever separated from each other due to border closures and lockdowns.

"Grief is there because of love."

Some tips for bereavement at Christmas...

  • Acknowledge your pain and loss and let loved ones know how you feel. You are not responsible for making everyone else happy.

  • Pretending your grief is not there, or trying to hide it can lead to higher stress.

  • If you are actually still looking forward to Christmas and find yourself enjoying it, that's okay too. Smiling and laughing does not mean you are no longer grieving, it means you are human and able to feel more than one thing at once. Children who are grieving also need to know it is still okay to enjoy Christmas if they want to.

  • It is ok to need some alone, quiet time. Christmas noises can seem louder and more overwhelming or irritating when grieving - step outside, go to the bathroom or go for a walk.

  • Plan to leave an event early if you need to. Let your host/family know ahead of time you might need to do this. Let them know this is so you don't need to put on a brave face.

  • Consider a change of venue if it might be too overwhelming to be in the same location as prior Christmases when your loved one was alive.

  • Consider a ritual or new tradition to acknowledge a deceased loved one. Do something that has meaning for you and helps you feel connected to your loved one. See below for ideas.

  • If the loss is this year and you just cannot bear to celebrate this year, give yourself permission not to. If you don't feel this is possible, perhaps you have young children, then reduce how much you do or how long you stay at an event.

New Traditions and Rituals

  • There are many possibilities but new traditions or rituals might be:

    • drinking a toast to your loved one,

    • lighting a candle,

    • leaving a chair spare at the table with a photo or favourite item on it,

    • visiting a favourite place in the days prior,

    • wearing something in their favourite colour,

    • buying a gift in their name and donating it to charity

    • including something on the menu they enjoyed.

Note: it is also okay to do nothing different at all.

If any of the above rituals might be triggering and more upsetting for other family members who are also grieving the same person, think of a way to do the ritual privately or in the days before or after Christmas.

An activity for Children

Children who are grieving the loss of a parent or sibling or loved one might like to make a clear bauble ornament by filling it with coloured ribbons or small objects that represent things that person enjoyed ($2 shops sell clear 'make your own baubles' tiny and figurines like cars and animals or in the craft section, hearts, stars, flowers etc.). For example, if the deceased loved a particular sport team, the ribbons might be the colours of the team; or green ribbons might represent a loved one who enjoyed gardening and blue for someone who enjoyed being out in the water.

As your child constructs the bauble, expect and allow discussion, tears, laughter, whatever emotions surface. This activity can be beneficial for processing the loss.


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