The season of Christmas is traditionally a time filled with joy, gatherings, gifts and celebrations.  However, when you are in a season of grief this can, understandably, be a very difficult season.  The most well-known form of grief is the one we talk about when we refer to having lost a loved one due to death— this is a very significant loss.  There are also other forms of grief in life that can affect us deeply.  Perhaps it is the loss of a relationship, losing the family farm, loss of a dream, family alienation over succession, a difficult diagnosis, children walking away from the legacy of the farm—the list goes on.  Whatever it is, it is a very real form of grief and should never be looked at as less than a perceived more significant form of grief.

We lost our 4 ½ year old son Mikail unexpectedly to Invasive Group A Streptococcal Disease in January of 2015 and this loss was devastating. The first two Christmases, especially, were incredibly difficult and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that there was a lot of secondary grief (multiple losses from one primary bereavement) that complicated things.  Secondary grief such as changes in relationships, a new home, loss of identity, impact on health, loss of dreams, shaken faith, sense of purpose, etc. impact our lives as well.  They shouldn’t be overlooked.  During the season of Christmas these losses seem to be magnified even more than other times of the year.

Grief is such an individual experience, yet we also grieve in community.  When our son Mikail passed away, I felt a deep need to have photos of him everywhere in our home.  Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to forget him. Perhaps I needed the reminder that he was a part of our family.  There could be many reasons for this need I personally had.  My husband Jason, however, didn’t want any pictures of Mikail out on display. To him, they were a reminder that Mikail was not with us.  They were a reminder of what would never be and what could have been.  His need was for the pictures to be put away.  When I was ready for the pictures to be put away, he was ready for them to come out.  Although we were grieving this deep loss together as Mikail’s parents, our individual needs and expressions of grief were very, very different and we had to make room for each other’s individual needs when it came to grief.  Neither of us was right and neither of us was wrong.  The key was to pull together and support each other with the different needs we had.  It would have been easier to push each other away—and we sometimes did, but we had to fight to lift each other up.  

This holds true for grief at Christmas as well.  Everyone approaches the Christmas season differently and an important thing to remember is that we need to have grace for each other and be kind to ourselves as well.

How can we show grace and kindness to ourselves and those around us during the season of Christmas when grief is a major player in our season?  Here are a few things I have learned to be helpful over the years:

  • Maintain a routine. Grief is overwhelming and can leave us feeling out of control.  Routine helps create a sense of normalcy and order when times are difficult.
  • Keep things simple. Let go of the activities that are overwhelming, but keep a few simple things that have brought you joy in the past.
  • It’s okay to say ‘no’ to some things in order to say ‘yes’ to taking care of yourself.
  • Honour old traditions or memories. This is a helpful way to keep your loved one’s memory present.
  • Remember your loved one in a special way. Perhaps begin a new tradition and be okay with that tradition changing or ending as years go by.  Some things are only needed for a time, while others remain significant for years to come.
  • Allow yourself to grieve.  It’s okay to show emotions. Tune into them.
  • Do something good for others. Doing something nice for someone else boosts energy and mood, decreases depression and anxiety and increases serotonin and other feel-good chemicals in your body.
  • Plan ahead for what you may or may not be able to handle.
  • Identify grief coping skills (breathing exercises, journaling, walking, listening to music etc.)
  • Ask for help.  Support from friends, family, coworkers and/or a professional are so important.

Perhaps you are not the one who is in the deep throngs of grief.  Perhaps it is a friend, a neighbour, a family member or someone in your farming community.  How do we support someone who is grieving at Christmas?  The answer to this really does depend on your relationship. Remember that it is important to keep in regular contact so that you can gauge when and what type of support is needed.  When you reach out, your messages may not be acknowledged, but your support shows that you are there for them.

For example, after Mikail passed away, a friend who was thousands of kilometers away, would send texts on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Easter and Christmas.  I do not remember if I acknowledged any of those texts.  However, I felt seen, cherished and known on those difficult days where the sadness felt magnified.  My guess is that she put a note in her phone on those dates as a reminder to herself to connect with me.  That simple commitment, meant the world to me. This support was incredibly significant to me.  Here are a few additional ideas of how we can support someone who is grieving at Christmas:

  • Reach out. Send a text. Call and leave a message if they don’t answer.
  • Send an encouraging card. Receiving encouraging snail mail is a simple joy for many people.
  • “Just be”.  Spend time together without an agenda. Listen—don’t interrupt or make comparisons—don’t give advice or empty platitudes. Just listen and be present.
  • Acknowledge their loss and difficult season.
  • Accept that others have different ways of grieving and adjust your expectations.
  • Use their loved one’s name in conversation, in cards, in texts.  Their loved one may not be physically present but they are constantly on their mind and will always be an important part of their life. Avoiding the subject does not keep grief away.
  • Offer practical help.  Be specific and don’t use the words ‘let me know what I can do’.  When we are grieving, we often don’t have the capacity to know what our needs are. Offering to bring a meal if needed is different than saying, I’d like to bring you dinner this week. Which day works best for you?  Helping to wrap Christmas gifts or taking the kids for an afternoon of crafts or baking so the parents can rest can also be helpful. Taking a grieving father out for an activity (fishing, hiking, hunting etc.) can mean so much.
  • Support their choices.  They don’t want to put up a Christmas tree because it’s too overwhelming? Support that decision.  They don’t want to participate in a tradition? Support that decision.  Sometimes we rush the grief process and push our expectations of where we think the griever should be at, but supporting choices helps the grief process along instead of stifling it. 
  • Extend invitations even if the invitation is declined.  To be thought of and to know someone still wants to spend time with you, even though you are sad, is so very encouraging.

I remember, so clearly, finding it very difficult to attend functions during the Christmas season in the first three years of our grief journey.  We decided we needed some time just to ourselves and couldn’t imagine ever being able to celebrate the holidays like we once did.  We retreated those first Christmases, but as time went on the pain dulled and diminished and we began to feel like we could participate more fully again.  This year will be our 8th Christmas without Mikail.  Those first Christmases we wondered whether the holidays would always hurt so much. And they did, for a few years.  Now the season is filled with a blend of sadness and joy, having learned that the two can coexist and create their own form of beauty.

As you walk through this holiday season, whether you are grieving the loss of a relationship, losing the family farm, loss of a dream, family alienation over succession, financial strain, a difficult diagnosis, children walking away from the legacy of the farm or whatever your current loss is—may you be able to intentionally find ways to support yourself or those around you who are grieving.

Iris Parr is a wife, mother, teacher and author. She lives in northern Alberta with her husband Jason and daughter Olivia.  Their forever 4 ½ year old son, Mikail, passed away unexpectedly in 2015. She can be found managing their Air BnB: The Urban Cottage, helping renovate their 1946 home, encouraging others on social media: @irisparr, as well as on her blog:  www.irisparr.ca and through her recently published Advent Devotional A Thrill of Hope—Finding Hope, Peace, Joy and Love in the Minor Notes of Christmas.

Link to Iris’ books:  https://irisparr.ca/my-books/

In addition to helping farmers connect with psychotherapists that are culturally competent and experienced in agriculture, we also offer comprehensive Mental Health Strategy support options for organizations and Agriculture Informed Therapy (AIT) training for psychotherapists servicing rural areas.
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