A therapist's guide to coping with grief at Christmas – and what you should never say to a grieving friend | The Sun

A therapist's guide to coping with grief at Christmas – and what you should never say to a grieving friend | The Sun

GRIEF has no guidebook or rules, though one might try everything they can to find answers.

At Christmas, grief can be particularly hard as nostalgia for old times lingers.

The lead-up to Christmas can be full of dread as you fear how you will feel on the big day; Will you be able to carry on with normal traditions? Will you cry non-stop? Is it bad to still feel excited?

During Grief Awareness Week, Dipti Tait, therapist and author of Planet Grief, says there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to grief and reactions will vary.

She says: “Grief is a complex and individualised normal response to loss, it feels like a turbulent cocktail of emotions. 

“Contrary to popular belief, grief is not confined to the death of a loved one.

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“In fact, it extends out to various life changes including things like relationship breakdowns.”

People often talk about the stages of grief; shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, upward turn, reconstruction, and acceptance and hope.

Realistically, things aren’t so linear. Feelings and states come and go, potentially over a lifetime.

Dipti shares what to expect with grief, how to cope with it, and how to help others.

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What to expect

You may experience a number of symptoms when missing a loved one. Dipti says these include:

  • Guilt: Feeling as if you could have done more or done better, feeling like you didn’t do enough, or that you should or shouldn’t have said certain things while you had the chance.
  • Shame: Feeling ashamed for feeling better and functioning OK, but also for not coping and when others around you seem to be.
  • Anxiety: Worrying about how you will cope and not wanting to be a burden on others.
  • Anger: Resentment about being in the situation and being left alone to deal with everything.
  • Loneliness: Feeling isolated, trapped, and as if nobody understands.
  • Self-Doubt: Questioning and second-guessing everything, and overthinking.
  • Sadness: Feeling heartbroken, as if you cannot shift the dark cloud hanging over your head.
  • Fear: Worrying about your safety and feeling as if you want to hide away from the world.
  • Fatigue: The emotional toll of grief can lead to physical exhaustion.
  • Changes in Appetite: Grief may affect eating habits – increased or decreased appetite.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is common during periods of grief.
  • Aches and Pains: Emotional distress can contribute to physical discomfort including chest pain – it’s not described as heartbreaking for no reason.

How to cope

Dipti says: "Recognise grief has no linear path, all kinds of emotions are thrown up so don’t try and fight them.

"Create a daily routine to provide a sense of structure and stability. That can be as simple as showering in the morning and making your bed.

"Prioritise self-care activities, including exercise, positive interaction, proper nutrition, and sufficient rest.

"Share your feelings with trusted friends, family, or a support group – online support groups can offer just as much help as ones you attend physically too.

"Consider professional help such as grief therapy sessions, or read books to help for additional support."

Helping others: The do's and don'ts

Perhaps you have a close friend or relative that is grieving the loss of someone.

Dipti says: "Offer a listening ear without judgment, allowing the grieving person to express their emotions.

"Provide practical support by assisting with daily tasks, meals, or childcare to alleviate some burdens.

"Grieving is a unique process; be patient and allow the person the time they need."

Be careful not to minimise someone's experience, Dipti sas.

"Validate the grieving person's emotions and avoid minimising their experience. It’s their experience to endure, not yours."

She also warns to never say things like:

  • They’ve gone to a better place
  • Time is a healer
  • They’re watching over you
  • I know exactly how you feel (or other comparisons with grief)
  • They had a good life

Support best

Dipti says that with children experiencing bereavement, "use age-appropriate language to explain the concept of loss".

She says: "Provide a sense of routine and stability. Offer creative outlets for expression, such as drawing or storytelling."

With parents or friends, offer practical help such as taking on tasks, like laundry, cooking, or other admin that has fallen behind.

For parents, "allow them to express their emotions without judgment," says Dipti. "Suggest professional support if needed."

With friends, she advises: "Be a good listener. Check-in regularly, even as time passes, as grief doesn't have a fixed timeline.

"Respect their need for alone time but also offer companionship."

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone in the office is grieving.

"Show empathy and understanding in the workplace," Dipti says.

"Be flexible and considerate of their needs. Offer assistance with work tasks if appropriate."

Christmas grief

Grief at Christmas can be a whole 'nother ball game.

Sue Ryder, bereavement charity, says think about who you want to spend Christmas with, and how 'normal' you want it to be.

The website says: "You shouldn't feel pressured to have Christmas as usual if it doesn't feel right, although celebrating as you normally would might be a comfort to you.

"This will be different for each person after a bereavement, so plan for a Christmas you feel comfortable with and give yourself permission to do what you want to do."

The charity also says that all emotions are normal to come flooding in and may take up energy.

"Tears are an important and, for some, necessary part of grief," it says.

"As much as you may fear that you won't stop crying once you start – you will, and you may even feel a little better for doing so."

For those having their first Christmas without someone they miss, Sue Ryder says: "It’s important to try not to put too much pressure on yourself and those around you, particularly as how you’re feeling might change from day-to-day.

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"You’re still processing and understanding your grief, and going through your first Christmas or holiday after a bereavement can bring up a whole range of emotions.

"Try to take each day as they come, and don’t be afraid to put yourself first this year."

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