We all know about the pressures that usually come with the run up to Christmas every year.
The money worries. The over-consumption. The neverending ‘to-do’ lists. The family feuds, traumas of Christmas past, nativity outfit making and elf on a bloody shelf. Not to mention the pressure of putting our relationships under the spotlight, and the anxiety that comes with the packed Christmas party diary, the thought of getting social with people you really don’t want to get social with.
And then there’s the dilemma of who to spend it with, and the onslaught of picture-perfect families in picture-perfect homes adorning your social feeds making you feel you’ve somehow failed at being a grown-up if you’ve yet to achieve that societally prescribed milestone. The shame of rocking up at another family Christmas dinner alone, surrounded by siblings who seem to have it all, affects more people than we know under usual circumstances. But this year, nothing is normal.
This year, Christmas is going to look and feel very different for everyone, and especially the loved ones of the 54,626 people here in the UK who have lost their lives to COVID this year. I know it’s going to be hard, because I have been supporting a number of women over the course of this year who have lost loved ones to a virus we cannot see. A virus that some people, who haven’t been directly affected, remain convinced is some kind of big conspiracy theory.
I’m here to say that it does exist.
I’ve seen first-hand this year the devastating, horrible impact the pandemic it has had on the families affected. This virus has ripped at the hearts of families up and down the country. It’s taken mothers and fathers from their children. Husbands, wives, partners, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues have been lost – not to mention the thousands of people currently trying to fight off the still raging threat.
This is not a normal Christmas for anyone who has lost a loved one this year, and there has been nothing ‘normal’ about the terrain grieving people have found themselves having to navigate in 2020.
Because lockdown hasn’t just restricted our freedom. Lockdown has put restrictions on grief.
The families and loved ones who have not been able to access the emotional and physical support they need to cope with the effects of their grief have been left missing hugs they yearn for, unable to offload to friends over coffee, aware that everyone around them is consumed by the pandemic in other ways, their own emotional bandwidths at an all-time low.
Our usual coping mechanisms just aren’t accessible, and even the way we say goodbye to our loved ones in 2020 is limited and restricted – which makes it even more difficult to grieve.
Lockdown hasn’t just restricted our freedom. Lockdown has put restrictions on grief.
In almost every culture, our immediate response to the loss of a loved one is some form of funeral ritual – very much the first step in the process of grieving. Goodbyes provide some level of structure and comfort in the immediate aftermath of death, bringing people together and giving some meaning to life lost. But the pandemic has changed and restricted that ritual. Socially-distanced funerals, devoid of a wake to bring people together, have hit hard at families.
And then there’s the constant reminder every day, in our news, in our media, in our social feeds – it’s a trauma trigger on a loop. The recent news about a vaccine is positive for those who have escaped the virus thus far, but bittersweet for the families for whom the vaccine hasn’t come soon enough. And whatever your stance on vaccines, the anti-vax chats increasingly taking up our airspace will undoubtedly trigger feelings of anger and resentment among those mourning both a loved one and a lack of the means to save them.
In many respects, navigating grief during lockdown is discombobulating. Outside, the world feels ‘static’, like everyone has joined a mass hibernation. But while there’s no pressure to put on a smile, or to even leave the house, that can further compound feelings of loneliness and isolation. The feeling that you are the only person in the world experiencing the enormity of the void your loved one once filled is a recipe for extreme loneliness, and it has left many hurtling towards a mental health crisis point.
When we lose a loved one suddenly, especially in the context of a pandemic, evidence and research shows us the loss can evoke more intense grief responses typically associated with prolonged grieving and the development of PTSD. We therefore need to support families who have lost their loved ones to this pandemic even more than usual. We need to see them, and hear them, and be there for them, and I’m not seeing that being led by anyone.
And let’s be realistic, COVID is not going to go away just because it’s Christmas.
The current conversations about lifting the lockdown so that families can be together is unhelpful for those in the depths of grief right now. It can feel to them like the epitome of insensitivity, because lifting or easing restrictions comes with risk. It means more people dying. It means more loss and, for the families approaching Christmas 2020 without their loved ones, it’s another stark reminder of what this virus has taken from them.
So, if you are dreading Christmas this year, know that you are far from alone. Whatever you do, it is not going to feel like the most wonderful time of the year. It can’t. But there are some things you can do to help you navigate the season.
Deconstruct Christmas this year
Reduce the season to its constituent parts and reframe it to fit with your current emotional capacity. Resist the pressure that comes with it. Define your own Christmas this year, rather than feeling a failure because the version society prescribes feels like a bad fit this year.
Love more, spend less
Throwing money at healing the huge void loss has created is never the answer. Love is what matters. Give love this Christmas. Lots of love.
Create a tradition which honours the memory of your loved one, or perhaps one which brings your family together (if allowed) in recognition of their absence and celebration of their life.
Give the gift of your time
If you know someone who has lost a loved one this year, reach out, give them the gift of your time and offer to listen. As a society, we often put a time limit on grief, an ‘acceptable’ period in which we allow people the time to be sad. But grief looks and feels different to everyone – there is no linear path or timeframe spent on that rough terrain. It can take months or years for people to process their emotional response to loss, even under normal circumstances, and our grief response is dependent on a whole host of variables.