Carols playing, families buying presents, trees and decorations – Christmas is on its way. As I write my blog today, I’m feeling reflective. For, like many of you, Christmas brings back memories of times gone by. It’s also one of the anniversary dates that, for bereaved people, can be challenging.
Losing someone to cancer can be tough and emotional. The loss you feel is tied up with past memories, experiences and the uniqueness of your relationship. Added to that, is the journey you travelled with them, as they went through their cancer experience. There may be poignant memories of the weeks and months before the person you loved died.
Anniversaries lurk round every corner, that first year, and beyond. This can include birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas, and holidays, for example. The anniversary of the person’s death is often the biggest date seared into the memory too.
Emotionally, what you feel may surprise you. Having gradually found grief to be less sharp over time, the anniversary dates can catch you unawares. You may feel a mix of emotions – love, affection and joy for the good times – but sadness, anger, heartache, maybe even guilt, about the loss.
Sometimes the resurgence of grief sneaks up on us, around anniversaries. You may find that you’re feeling low in mood, less patient, or generally ‘out of sorts’ in the days and weeks around the big anniversaries – and forget that it may be tied up with bereavement. It may be that you’re dreading the date, and wondering how you can get through. First Christmases and anniversaries of the death date, in particular, can be hard.
What can you do?
Let’s think first about Christmas, as that date is approaching fast. Being prepared for the date can help. Many people find the first Christmas particularly tough, as there are often memories, customs and traditions that you and your loved one shared. These memories are special and significant to you.
You may find you want to be with people, or be on your own. Other members of your family and friends may also be grieving, and between you all you may want to plan how you cope with the day. Cruse Bereavement Care’s website suggests that ‘On special occasions, those around you may not want to intrude on your grief. Find the courage to make that call/text. “Are you free for coffee?” is a gentle reminder to them that you are in need of company’
The Christmas period may be a time of reflection. Try and think how you might wish to spend the day. Some people maintain old familiar rituals, others create new ones. It can feel important to honour the person in some way – and that may be by visiting the grave, lighting a candle, looking at photograph albums, talking about the person. Some families set up an ‘empty chair’ at the Christmas table or raise a glass to the person they’ve lost.
Let your family and friends know that Christmas time might be tough this year, so that if you don’t feel like joining in celebrations, that’s OK. Some people choose to go away, and try and leave the memories behind. What I would say, is that sometimes that break away may not be the distraction you planned – as the emotions may still follow you.
Take time to care for yourself too. Try and get plenty of rest, and perhaps avoid using alcohol (too much of it) as a crutch. Eat well, still take time for some gentle exercise, and accept support. Don’t try to put a ‘brave face’ on, if you’re feeling sad.
Christmas can be the time when everything seems to close down, just when extra support may be needed. Maggie’s Centres close down too, over the festive period, so if you’re grieving, and need an emotional ‘top up’, do drop in before Christmas Day itself. If loneliness and sadness feels overwhelming, Cruse Bereavement Care helpline will be open throughout Christmas and New Year. The Samaritans have a free 24 hour helpline - 116 123, and are available to listen, if things are feeling overwhelming and it feels like there is no-one to talk to.
Over time, your Christmas days will adjust – new customs will develop, and sadness will be replaced with happier memories. But, if this year your loss is still raw, tread gently – we’re all thinking of you.
The death anniversary
There will be anniversary dates which have specific significance to you, and the relationship you shared with the person who has died. Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversaries, and birthdays to name but a few. Other anniversary dates may linger too. Sadder ones, such as the date they were diagnosed, or the last holiday together – life is full of memories. A date that many people struggle with, particularly the first year, but often for many years to come, is the day the person died.
The Marie Curie website has a section on ‘caring for yourself on days you miss your loved one’. The writer wisely noted that ‘Death ends a life but it doesn’t end a relationship’. Just because the person is no longer here, your relationship doesn’t stop. Over time, with grief, it becomes an integral part of who you are. It becomes more manageable, as the years go by, but still has the capacity to momentarily make you weak with sadness.
On the death anniversary, you may wish to plan ahead how you will manage the day. Many people, the first year, take the day off work, to spend with the family. Others want to be alone, in quiet reflection.
It’s a day where you may miss your loved one even more than usual. Maybe visit a favourite place, or the graveside, or release a balloon in the park. A friend of mine went for a long walk with a group of friends to a familiar beauty spot. You may want to look at old photographs, or maybe write a letter to the person you loved. You’ll know what feels right for you.
You may find you feel more tearful and sad in the days up to and including the day. It is OK to cry. This date will feel different for many years to come, although the angst and urgency of the first anniversary is possibly the worst.
If you need to talk, talk. This may have been the biggest loss you’ve ever had to experience. It can be hard to describe the heartache to others – but, remember, people do care. You may find some friends and family avoid the topic of anniversaries, in case of upsetting you. Let people know that it is OK to talk about the person you’ve lost.
Where do I get support?
It may be that certain anniversaries bring up considerable emotions. It is to be expected. However, if the grief and heartache is weighing you down, do seek support. You’ll find useful tips and information in my blog ‘Bereavement – the early weeks and months’
Some of you may have spiritual support and guidance through your local church or faith organisation. A good friend or family member, who understands what you’re going through, can be a rock on the tough days. Maggie’s is here for you too Find your nearest Maggie's centre if you find you need somewhere to talk through your feelings, and help you through the grieving process.
Meanwhile, if today is a tough day – thank you for reading, and hoping the days ahead will be easier.
Bereavement support Maggie’s Centres
Anniversaries and reminders when you are bereaved Cruse Bereavement Care
Anniversaries and events when you’re grieving The Loss Foundation
Grief, anniversaries and significant events Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement