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How to cope with grief over Christmas: 'Whatever you are feeling is valid'

Our psychotherapist Liz Ritchie speaks to Yahoo about dealing with grief.

By Alexandra Thompson, Yahoo News

The coronavirus pandemic has left many families mourning the loss of a loved one.

Since the outbreak began, tens of thousands of people are known to have died with the infection in the UK alone.

The emotional toll of bereavement can hit particularly hard around the festive season.

“Christmas can be a deeply painful time for those who have lost loved ones,” psychologist Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh told Yahoo UK.

“The sense of grief and loss are often amplified during occasions that mark family time.

“This can manifest as disbelief, shock, numbness, profound sadness, crying, anger, fear, regret, guilt, mental exhaustion and physical tiredness.”

The first Christmas without a loved one is rarely easy, however, the coronavirus outbreak may make the festive celebrations particularly challenging.

“Losing someone when it has been impossible to be with a loved one in the hospital during their last days, and not being able to hold the traditional funerals and services to say goodbye, can further complicate the grief process,” Liz Ritchie, a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, told Yahoo UK.

While there is no “right” way to process the loss of a loved one, Dr Campbell-Danesh recommends confiding in people you trust about what you are going through, even if it has to be done virtually.

“Ask others how they’re feeling too,” he said. “Studies show naming emotions actually reduces their intensity.”

Coronavirus victims will inevitably be at the forefront of many people’s minds this Christmas, however, certain family traditions could trigger waves of grief.

Perhaps a game of charades conjures up memories of a lost grandfather, or a beloved aunt made the mince pies enjoyed every 25 December.

“Talk as a family about whether it feels more appropriate to continue an old tradition or create a new one,” said Dr Campbell-Danesh.

“You may wish to do both, for instance keeping the typical set-up for the day, whilst also marking the life of the person that passed in a personal way.

“This could include lighting a candle, reading a poem, baking the person’s favourite Christmas pudding, visiting the grave or place where the ashes were scattered, or making a wreath or tree decoration that represents the loved one.”

Ritchie believes holding on to widely-celebrated traditions may bring some relief during this challenging time.

“Perhaps this festive season we should hold onto things that brings us joy and comfort when we need it most,” she said.

These may include decorating the house and exchanging gifts with loved ones.

While some choose to push feelings of grief away, honouring a lost loved one may make Christmas easier to cope with.

“Take a moment to hold the person you’re missing in your mind and heart,” said Dr Campbell-Danesh.

“You may wish to do this on your own or with others, for instance taking a minute silence or going round the family and discussing your favourite memories of that person.”

For many reasons, Christmas will undoubtedly feel rather different in 2020. For those mourning the loss of a coronavirus victim, Dr Campbell-Danesh advises trying to enjoy the festive season amid your grief.

“It’s important to give yourself permission to potentially experience moments of joy on Christmas Day too,” he said.

“There may be times when you aren’t thinking about the person, or you’re happy or laughing; that’s okay too.

“There isn’t a specific way you should be feeling. It’s likely different emotions will surface and pass at different times.

“See if you can flow with whatever arises and try to be gentle with yourself.”

Ritchie also recommends people try to reframe their way of thinking.

“Be mindful of the ‘what ifs’, ‘could haves’, ‘should haves’, ‘maybes’ and ‘if onlys’,” she said.

“These can be natural responses to grief, but it is perhaps more helpful to radically accept ‘what has happened’.”

That being said, do not be ashamed if you find the Christmas season challenging.

“Remember whatever you are feeling is valid,” said Ritchie.

“Those coping with grief during this emotional time should not feel isolated and unable to speak.

You will have intense feelings during this time. Accept feelings of anguish are difficult to avoid.”

Bereavement can develop into depression, with some enduring persistent feelings of sadness or tearfulness. Others may have physical symptoms, like a loss of appetite or insomnia.

Ritchie stressed people should continue to look after themselves amid their grief, ensuring they are eating well and getting plenty of rest.

If bereavement becomes a serious issue, speak to a GP or Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677.