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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

We talk to Dr Susan Delaney, a clinical psychologist and Bereavement Services Manager, The Irish Hospice Foundation about bereavement at Christmas time. She will give advice on how best we can cope with bereavement at Christmas.

Approximately 30,000 people die each year in Ireland. As at least 10 people are affected by each death, it is estimated that 300,000 people are newly bereaved every year. The loss of someone special is an event that affects us personally but has repercussions in the workplace, the economy and our society. It is important that society understand the effects of bereavement and offers support to those who are coping with loss.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the old traditions around grief. People have begun to embrace the wearing or ribbons to demonstrate a link to illnesses such as breast cancer. A visual symbol of loss is important for many bereaved people. Earlier this year, the Irish Hospice Foundation decided to launch a specially designed bereavement pin. The pin can be used as a connection to the person who has died, a reminder that people are grieving and an outward sign to others that they have suffered a loss.

Loss at Christmas Time:

By Susan Delaney
There is something about Christmas that intensifies all our emotions. Most of us have very strong memories of childhood Christmases - be they positive or negative.

The hype which begins in October and the expectations that builds up in the weeks before Christmas day can make it a very difficult time for those of us who are bereaved.

Approximately 30,000 people die in Ireland every year. If ten people are affected by each death, that is 300,000 people facing their first Christmas without a significant person.

The first Christmas brings particular challenges. Perhaps the person who died is the person who picked out the tree, made the Christmas pudding or played some other important part in the family traditions.

Their absence can be felt very keenly and decisions have to be made about how to accommodate the loss. Many families choose to have a quieter Christmas out of respect to the person who has died.

It is tempting and understandable to try to ignore the fact that Christmas is approaching. But it is better to acknowledge the time of year that is in it and to try to make a plan for surviving what might indeed be a difficult time.

Some people like to visit the grave and put holly or ivy on it. Others light a candle or remember the person in a few words at the dinner table. Grieving is tiring and energy sapping, so try to also plan a little quiet time for yourself when you can have a lie down or go for a short walk.

While we can easily understand the difficulty that a family death can bring, it is important to remember that there are many other people who experience hidden losses at this time. For example, couples who had always hoped to have children and are still childless, or people who had hoped that this would be the year they found a partner and now find themselves still single at the end of the year.

A person in a same sex relationship may be grieving the loss of their partner. Their pain may be compounded by the fact that their loss has not been openly acknowledged by their family or the wider community. A woman may grieve a secret abortion or early miscarriage many decades before or a person who was adopted may spend time mourning the fact that he or she has not been able to track down birth parents.

If the truth be told, few people get through the Christmas season without some sadness. For many people life has not worked out as they imagined and those disappointments are intensified at this time, particularly when it seems, - from the outside, - that everyone else is having a wonderful time.

As you inevitably focus on the absence that this year brings, try to take a moment to notice who is present in your life and who has supported you through the difficult times.

If you have been bereaved this year, remind yourself that the grief journey takes time and that most people experience days when they are coping quite well and other days when they feel ambushed by their grief and just getting through the day can be a challenge.

It may indeed be a very sad time, but even on the most difficult of days something unexpected can happen that lifts your spirits even for a few moments - it might be carol singers on Grafton Street, the sound of children laughing, or a thoughtful note through the letter box letting you know that others are thinking of you at this time.

Dr Susan Delaney, a clinical psychologist and Bereavement Services Manager, The Irish Hospice Foundation.

Susan Delaney:

Why is bereavement at Christmas a difficult time?
At Christmas our emotions are accentuated, and bereavement at this time can especially difficult. Also, at Christmas, everything seems to be telling people to have a good time, and to start enjoying themselves - this message is everywhere; in cards, on the television, even on ringtones .. Christmas is also a time when people are coming home and when a family is not all together, like previous occasions so this can be a difficult time.

Are there different stages in bereavement?
Grief is circular and it's best for those who are going through this process to understand this as well. There are of course a range of different emotions, anger, and maybe shock - if the grief is sudden, but these may not happen all at the one time. A person who is grieving may then think that they have not yet gone through the 'anger stage', and start to wonder why this is. Grief is different for every single person. Grief also has a 'spiral nature' - sometime we might thing that we are getting through the grief process okay, then, all of a sudden, something might trigger the intense emotions that grief brings and that person might have a bad day again. They should realise that this is ok, that it is ok to have a very bad day now and again.

What about hidden grief?
Hidden grief at Christmas is also important to acknowledge and accept. This can be in the form of a number of things. Christmas is at the end of the year and maybe a couple may have wanted to have had a baby at this time and they have not been successful, and Christmas might be hard for them.. Maybe another person still longs for a relationship or maybe reflects on relationships that has not worked out for them, all of this is hidden grief that can come to the fore at Christmas, because Christmas has a way to attenuate our emotions.. Few people get through the Christmas season without some sadness

How can we help someone that we know who is grieving this Christmas?
We can help people in a number of ways.. If someone is grieving, sometimes we may want to send the cheery Christmas card to them that we sent every year, and we're not sure if we should send it. We might feel uncomfortable and maybe just do nothing, i.e., send nothing.. Both of these can be hurtful to the person who is grieving..

How then can we help these people?
A good idea is to maybe send a blank card with just a very short message on it saying happy Christmas, and that we are thinking of you. people might not want to send something like 'I'm sure you will be missing 'John' (if that is the name of the person who the family lost) this Christmas. I would say that this is a perfectly fine to send on a card.. The family would not have forgotten 'John', and they will be thinking of him at Christmas, so they won't be offended by this..
One other thing that you can do for a person that is grieving is make an offer. Tell them that you will be passing by their house in 10 minutes and want to know if they need anything. just make a offer, and by doing this, you are letting the person know that you are going to be there for them.
Another thing to remember is not to be offended if the person just wants to be by themselves, that is only our ego talking to us if we are offended.

Four essential steps' to help people who are coping with bereavement this Christmas

1. Understand that you are your own best judge..
2. Make a plan for the day (you can also make a plan for the Christmas week)
3. Take up invitation
4. Notice things that lift your spirits

1: You are your own best judge
Grief is a journey, and there is no simple answer about how it affects us. Each individual is their own best indicator of how they are feeling that that particular time, if is they are ready, or not ready to do something because of their grief, they should listen to what they are feeling, and it is good for them to be their own judge.

2: Make a plan:
On Christmas day for example, have a think about what is going to be the most difficult part of the day for you. Then maybe plan something for that time of the day. We know that we will be going to Mass at a certain time or to a graveyard, and if that is difficult, bring someone with you, that can support you.

3: Taka up an invitation:
This can be good to keep you socially active. Even if it is just a 10 minute coffee/chat with a friend.. What people in grief should look for is a balance. It is not good for them to say that they should simply move on and throw themselves into their work. it is also not good to spend too long in bed grieving.

4: What out for things that lift your spirit:
This can be a simple thing like a song being sung in a church or hearing something on the radio or television that lifts your spirits. Recognise this, and remember that it is good to start feeling ok again.

Do people sometimes feel guilty if they feel they are enjoying themselves?
What we should remember is that moving on is not forgetting. Moving on is also a very natural thing to do - our brains are wired to 'move on'. If we continue to experienced the acute grief like we did in the first few months of losing someone, then that would just kill us. Sometimes new family members and young children are born into a family that had a previous bereavement around Christmas time, maybe the children might feel that Santa is not going to come because some of the family members are sad etc. It is important to encourage children and those who experienced the previous loss, that it is ok for them to enjoy themselves at Christmas. Maybe one thing that a family could do is introduce something like a star on a Christmas tree to remember an uncle who is no longer with them.

For useful information on bereavement, you can go to: