How to cope during the holidays of a first anniversary of a loved ones death

Remembering a loved one at Christmas​

Every year, without fail, we’d buy my Grandfather “Shuxie” a packet of Cadbury chocolate sultanas.

This tradition is as vivid as the rich, sweet taste of the chocolate melting in my mouth. A shared ritual I relished as a child—even though I didn’t like sultanas.

But this year marks the first Christmas without him.

The first where he won’t be there to unwrap the gift, his eyes lighting up in mock surprise, followed by his heartfelt “aw shucks” and his infectious laugh that warmed the room.

He passed away earlier this year.

There have been many ‘firsts’ without him this year, but this first Christmas feels particularly sharp.

Personally, his influence on me extended beyond these small traditions. He was the one who sparked my love for philosophy, a love that eventually guided me towards psychology.

I now find myself, a registered psychologist, sitting across from patients in my therapy room, listening as they voice their own apprehensions about facing their first holiday period without a loved one.

It’s a shared experience, one that many in Australia and across the world are witnessing.

In my professional journey, having worked as a psychologist in palliative care and aged care, I’ve come to understand that grief, no matter the time that has passed, is as unique and deeply personal as the relationship we mourn.

There’s no textbook method to grieving, no one ‘right’ way to feel or to heal.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This is a favourite quote that I’ve shared countless times with patients.

Here are five things I’ll be doing to help myself navigate grief through the holiday period:

  1. Compassion

The holiday period is a time when loss can be felt more acutely. Each festive song, present buying, or baking goodies is a reminder of what, and who is missing. This season, so deeply associated with togetherness, can sharpen the sense of loss and loneliness.

Grief is normal.

Please, repeat after me, “I won’t be giving myself a hard time for feeling a completely normal human emotion such as sadness in the face of loss.”

In fact, I’ll be reminding myself that my sadness is a reflection of how much love there was. As love and sadness are two sides of the same coin.

This sadness is a healthy part of mourning. The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement talks about an oscillation in grieving between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented activities.

Loss-oriented activities are those that are directly connected to the grief – such as crying, talking about the loved one, or spending time looking at photos. These activities can be particularly poignant during the holidays when memories flood back with every tradition.

The Dual process model of grief

Restoration-oriented activities, on the other hand, are about stepping forward into life without the deceased. This can mean creating new traditions.

2. Tradition/Ritual

Christmas and the holiday period are times of traditions and rituals. Traditions that are often about togetherness. “Rituals are the formulas by which harmony is restored.” – Esther Perel

In our family, we’ll be acknowledging our Christmas rituals of backyard cricket, wearing silly cracker hats, sitting around the tree and opening presents, and having one too many of my uncle’s home brews.

It’s these traditions and rituals that give us a sense of continuity, and contribute to growth activities. Starting new traditions doesn’t mean we forget previous ones. We can continue old traditions while creating new ones. As the Growing Around Grief model acknowledges, our grief doesn’t get smaller; rather, we grow around our grief.

Growing around grief

3. Reflection

I’ll be dedicating time to reflection. When I feel pangs of sadness, I’ll sit and acknowledge the emotions, which are communications of the psychological impact he had on my life and the void his absence has left.

I’ll be taking moments to remember the conversations we had, the lessons he taught me, and the small, everyday interactions that now seem so precious. I hope you also allow yourself to feel the full spectrum of emotions these memories evoke.

Reflection allows us to process our emotions, to understand our loss, and to find meaning in it. Reflection can be a shared experience.

4. Support

Grieving with the support of a loved one is like being sheltered by a sturdy umbrella during a relentless storm. It doesn’t make the storm go away, but it helps us withstand it. Support can come in many forms. For me, this Christmas, it will be about sharing memories of Shuxie, reminiscing, and offering and receiving comfort from family members.

Sometimes it’s a loved one who is grieving, so it can be a tricky experience knowing how to support them. Just being there for someone is enough. To let them say whatever they need to without feeling they need to hide or shut down their grief. That means it’s sometimes about bearing the unbearable with someone.

Some people also find solace in talking to the deceased, keeping photos of them around, or incorporating them in family traditions. This is part of the Continuing Bonds theory.

Support can also come from professional sources, such as counselling or therapy. It’s okay to seek help if the grief feels too heavy to bear alone. As someone who has provided support to others in my professional role, I know the immense value of having a space to express and process grief.

This holiday season, I encourage others who are grieving to acknowledge your grief and reach out for support if you need it. Whether it’s talking to a friend, joining a support group, or seeking professional help, remember that you don’t have to go through this alone.

You can navigate the holidays while grieving, and each year it becomes easier. Not because the grief goes away, but because your life expands around it.

As for me, you’ll find me snacking on chocolate-covered sultanas — although, now that I’m older, I eat the sultanas too.

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