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Christmas And Grief

Christmas can be a time of joy, however, for some it can also be a stressful and difficult time.

Following a disaster such as the Victorian bushfires, where you may have lost a loved one, your home or your community, Christmas can be a confusing time. As a survivor, you may be experiencing emotions such as:

  • grief
  • anger
  • frustration
  • hopelessness
  • anticipation and hope for the future

These feelings are very normal, although they may be difficult.

Navigating your way through Christmas after the loss of a loved one

When you have lost someone who has been an integral part of your family, it can take time to work out what is right for you and your family at Christmas.

If you have lost a loved one, you and your family are likely to feel sadness about your loss and maybe also around memories associated with the circumstances of their death.

Such sadness may not be obvious and/or talked about directly and is often expressed as irritability, anger or and intolerance.

Great patience and love is required to get through this time, and things that can help include:

  • Letting children know that it is alright for them to have plans and enjoy themselves, as well as feeling sad. It can be a confusing time experiencing both feelings at the same time. Some people feel guilty because they feel happy or excited, despite their loss. Remind them that expressing joy and being happy doesn't mean that they miss the absent person any less.
  • Taking some ‘time out’ for yourself and encouraging others to do the same. Often grieving and trying to be present and cheerful at a gathering can be exhausting, so it helps to balance such occasions with plenty of rest and quiet time.
  • Taking some time to visit somewhere that you used to go with the absent person, writing a letter to them or sharing some of your memories with a friend. As you do these things you are modeling self-care to others and your actions may help others accept how they are feeling.
  • Doing what works for you and your family. You may choose to leave the area or to stay with relatives. Other families may want to stay close to where they have been all year. Some grieving families will choose to make Christmas simpler and deliberately different from previous years.

Overall, remember there are no rights or wrongs, so try to avoid judging yourself or others. Trust that everyone is doing the best they can at this difficult time.

Being with the family

When thinking about Christmas and your family this year some of these tips may also be useful:

  • Aim to have early conversations with the family about how you all wish to spend Christmas and Boxing Day so that planning is not rushed. The following questions may help guide your conversations:
    • Where will you be?
    • Who will be there?
    • Have relatives invited you to stay with them?
    • Do teenagers need to have some time out with their peers?
    • Can this be accommodated? If so, how?
  • Involve all family members when planning how you want to spend time together. Discuss what people want to do and try to include some of what everyone has put forward
  • Encourage children to talk openly about their concerns, listening respectfully and sharing your own thoughts
  • Keep realistic expectations - if your family usually argues when they get together, then accept that this will probably happen at Christmas as well
  • Be aware that music, either Christmas tunes or favourite songs from the past, can trigger sadness and tears in a way that other activities don't. If a family member becomes overwhelmed with sadness, try to stay with them and acknowledge their feelings. Show them that you understand and are there for them. By allowing them to express their sadness it can help them to move through it and to become more present in the celebrations that are taking place
  • If you are with your extended family, plan a shorter time together, as an extended period of time can be tiring
  • Give yourself some time out - taking a rest can help make the day more manageable
  • Play a game that you all enjoy in the yard or down at the park - this can help to pass the time happily together
  • Take time to remember and talk about close family members who have died

Financial matters

Christmas may be a difficult time financially this year because of other, more essential expenses.

Christmas advertising often focuses on gifts and finding something ‘special’ for someone, as well as having plenty of Christmas food available. This can be difficult to achieve for many reasons, and can create feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Often parents feel obliged to spend more than they can afford and this can lead to financial problems later on.

Things that can help ease financial strain include:

  • Making a budget so you know how much you have to spend. Some people find it helpful to save money for Christmas throughout the year
  • Trying to stick to your budget by planning what to buy before you go shopping. This way you are less inclined to make impulse buys which you may regret later
  • Starting your Christmas shopping early. It can get very hectic close to Christmas and although it can be fun to buy one or two gifts at the last minute, it can also lead to not thinking clearly about what you can afford and want to buy
  • Avoiding promising your children gifts beyond your budget. When expectations are not met it can be disappointing, especially for children
  • Asking for help and ideas about planning and budgeting from a financial advisor - Centrelink offer free advice to people on benefits
  • Making some family gifts, or helping your children to make some. This can save money and many children love to make special presents for someone they love. The person who receives them also often feels especially pleased that someone has taken the time to make them a gift. Ideas include:
    • making food or sweets
    • painting a picture or make a frame
    • recording a message to send to relatives far away
    • making cards or bookmarks

Eating and drinking

Food and drink are often a big part of Christmas get togethers and preparation can be quite stressful. In addition, increased consumption of alcohol and food can leave people feeling unwell or with heightened emotions. What can you do to make things easier?

  • Involve all family members in helping to prepare food, if they are old enough
  • Ask people to help you with a specific job on the day - let them know that you are happy to have help in the kitchen, and how they can help
  • Consider having a buffet where each family member contributes a different dish
  • Prepare some food beforehand. You can prepare vegetables the day before, or make some cakes or food that can be frozen and defrosted
  • Plan alcohol availability to minimise heightened anger or sadness

Christmas and the media

christmas and griefThe media often presents Christmas as a picture of happy families enjoying each other's company while giving and receiving gifts. Most likely, this picture does not fit with your thoughts of Christmas this year, as with many families. The difference between this ‘ideal’ and reality can put pressure on families and lead to stress and feelings of tension as they prepare for Christmas.

At this time, it can help to remember that the media presents just one side of Christmas, and every family celebrates Christmas in their own way, with their own traditions and values.


Finally, try to keep realistic expectations and remember that love, commitment and patience can help families to have a happy time at Christmas. Be sure to organise a treat for yourself, or some quiet time alone. Remember, others may not thank you for your efforts, so recognise and praise yourself!

If you become overwhelmed by sadness and/or feel that you are unable to cope with the demands of Christmas, it's important to talk with someone - try talking to a friend, family member or a counsellor.

If you have been affected by the bushfires in Victoria, and have concerns about your family at Christmas you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or use our web or email services.

Other counselling services


Published: 8 January 2010