The holidays and especially Christmas time after a loss can be very challenging. Filled with family gatherings and wishes including words such as ‘merry’, ‘happy’ or ‘grateful’ might you want to scream and run for cover. This is where extreme self-care is required.
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I remember the first Christmas time after my daughter died. My whole family came from Switzerland to Sydney to be with us. We drove to the Hunter Valley, the luscious wine region not to far north, where we rented a house for the days around Christmas and my birthday. It was meant to be a joyous time of celebration and being together away from the city.
Taking care of an almost 4 months-old – A’Mya’s twin sister – meant there was the obvious joyousness around her, a small baby. It also meant night-time feeding for me. There were however also the not so obvious issues simmering under the surface: our grief, different for each and every person, my mother’s depression and the family dynamics that were there from the beginning of time.
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Grief is ever-present, even if you don’t realize it
My personal grief was leaking out through waves of emotionality. I can’t speak for others but there was definitely tension in the air. I do not believe that this was only due to our family dynamics. My mother’s state of health caused an additional source of stress, grief around her loss of health.
We tried to live up to the Christmas spirit and attempted to enjoy each other’s company. We spent about equal amounts of time achieving this high and mighty goal as we spent stressing about it.
I didn’t know or remember at the time that looking after my needs was what was needed. From what I’ve learnt growing up, being with family meant postponing my own needs for the sake of the group. I remember as a young adult being called ‘egotistical’ when announcing I was going to have a bath (I had very bad atopic eczema and the only thing that soothed the itchiness was a hot bath).
What I know now is that the most important question in times of stress – and Christmas time counts as a potentially stressful time of the year – is
What do I need right now? And how can I make sure I give myself what I need?
If you’re not used to asking yourself this question, you might initially find it challenging to know what you need. If that’s the case, you might find it easier to know what you DON’T need by listening to your body. You will have noticed times when you felt situational discomfort, for example, experienced as a pit in the stomach or a headache. These are symptoms of situation that are not what you need right now. Take note of those.
On the other hand, you will now become aware of situations that suit your needs. They make you either feel relaxed, happy or at ease.
When you’re grieving, you are already running a daily marathon. You might simply not have the strength for the extra effort it takes to attend a family Christmas lunch, where you are faced with children running around and be expected to happy for everyone else. If you know that ahead of time, excuse yourself according to what’s needed depending on your family situation and expectations. Some families might understand when you explain truthfully what’s going on. Other families might require a less detailed explanation to avoid further stress.
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Your way out
As much as you can plan ahead, you also do yourself a favour if you think about an exit strategy, should you change your mind. Let’s say you decided to attend a family gathering and it turns out that you have exceeded your energy and want to leave. If you’ve thought this through before going, you know how to handle it and avoid the extra challenge of coming up with an excuse.
My eighth Christmas
The way we celebrate Christmas has changed significantly over the past eight years. This year, we will have a more casual family dinner at the beginning of December. The actual Christmas holidays are spent as everyone needs or wants it. For us, this means spending some days in a nice hotel in the mountains and hoping for snow. This year I started thinking about what it is that I need early enough to feel relaxed and at ease with the upcoming holidays.