By Clinical Psychologist, Cherie Dalton
Christmas is a time of special traditions, sharing of meals and relationships, and religious celebration. It can also be a poignant reminder of memories shared with loved ones who are no longer here potentially generating a mix of grief and sadness, warmth and gratitude. Grief is an understandably complex process and while everyone works through things in their own way, it is a commonly shared experience. Occasions such as Christmas bring particular opportunity to shine a light on what matters most to us – past and present. While people may be inclined to feel alone at Christmas, the very nature of the celebration emphasises the importance of community, friendship, gentleness, generosity, kindness and gratitude. Despite the experience of grief and sadness, we can consciously and deliberately choose to notice the underlying positive intent of the festive season.
In her reflection of grief and sadness, Yoko Ono observed “Experiencing sadness and anger can make you feel more creative, and by being creative, you can get beyond your pain or negativity.” While the pain may continue, we can practice openness and curiosity to find ways of honouring a loved one this Christmas. Festive rituals and routines often represent both memories from the past and the creation of a new present, (Collins,T., 2014) simultaneously allowing us to feel reassured by the familiar, while facing change. Moving toward this ‘new’ present, while not easy, may extend personal flexibility, creativity, social relationships and new experiences, by, for example, spending Christmas on a holiday with a friend to deliberately create new experiences while also allowing memories of past Christmases to be gently present.
Christmas can signal change by creating an opportunity to deliberately reflect, actively remember those we’ve lost and find time to talk about them to trusted family, friends, or members of the community, helping in small ways to process the sense of loss. Christmas serves as a social resource as family, friends and communities are brought together routinely as an opportunity to reinforce ties (Allan, 1996; Allan, Hawker and Crow, 2008). The coming together of people in a variety of ways at Christmas can offer increased social support and activities compared with other times of the year. Get togethers organised with the ‘excuse’ of Christmas can offer ready-made, easier opportunities for social support and a common purpose. The intergenerational links of children and grandchildren (even if not related) are symbols of joy and continuity and can ease family tensions and negative feelings during celebrations (Searle-Chatterjee, 2001). Pleasant traditions such as the exchange of gifts, carol singing and contact with young children can add to a meaningful and shared experience as an antidote to loneliness and emptiness.
At times of vulnerability, people often discover the gift of predictability. Christmas is rich in the value of tradition and familiarity. If we tune into the reassurance and comfort in these traditions, perhaps we can soften our journey. The tunes and lyrics of carols, community concerts, the sending and receiving of Christmas cards, favourite Christmas ‘comfort’ foods, church services, social get- togethers and once-a-year catch-ups and Christmas decorations can all serve a reassuring purpose. In particular, Christmas cards present an opportunity to maintain social relations with work colleagues, neighbours, friends or family. Receiving cards has a positive effect on self-esteem and happiness (Medical News Today, 2003) and the custom ensures retention of scattered links with the past, helping to preserve a sense of continuity in life in the face of change (Searle-Chatterjee, 2001). A ritual that’s worth continuing for our benefit and others!
Charities, churches, councils and schools all use the festive season to engage and welcome the community. There are emotional rewards for us all in both receiving and offering kindness. With the many ‘ready-made’ opportunities at this time of year, offering energy, time or a donation may be easier than you think. Offering your help to a soup kitchen, donating food or gifts, sending Christmas cards expressing gratitude for others in your life, baking for a community event, helping with Meals on Wheels, dropping off flowers to a nursing home or taking left-over ham to a neighbour who lives alone may prove to be a gift to both you and others. It’s a perfect season for a ‘considered (rather than random) act of kindness’!
Most importantly, seize the moment and reflect with gratitude on the warm relationships shared with others, both in the past AND the present this Christmas.
For more information on Cherie and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
If you feel you need help the following support lines are available:
Lifeline 13 11 14 (24 hours), GriefLine 1300 845 745 (noon-3am, daily), or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 (24 hours) and Beyond Blue Online Chat http://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support>