The festive season, we are told, should be all about happy families, delicious food and beautifully hand-wrapped presents. While the holidays can be joyous and wonderful, the reality is that it can be an incredibly challenging and lonely time for many people. It is a stressful time for relationships, with an increase of break-ups and divorces over this period, and for those who have lost loved ones, emotions can feel turbulent and raw.
CEO of Relationships Australia, Elisabeth Shaw, tells SBS that Christmas time may trigger strong emotions, due to the symbolism and meaning attached to the season.
“Loved ones are part of our significant life milestones, and the events themselves can feel less meaningful without them,” says Shaw.
Being constantly reminded about what’s missing in your life – when witnessing what others have – can also be difficult.
“Most conversations leading up to Christmas are about: where will you be? Who will be there? We have to account for what we are doing [during the break], and again it can be painful to say over and over, for example, ‘my mother won’t be with us this year’.”
“Loved ones are part of our significant life milestones, and the events themselves can feel less meaningful without them."
Be mindful of your grief
Lifeline’s research foundation executive director, Alan Woodward, explains that intense grief often creeps up on people during the Christmas season. The best thing is for people to not avoid or hide from their emotions and accept that they may not feel their best.
“It’s important to be mindful. It’s perfectly human that if you’re going through grief you will have intense feelings during this time,” Woodward says.
Woodward estimates that Lifeline receives 2,500 calls per day throughout the year. While this number doesn’t escalate on Christmas day, there is a significant increase in calls over the months following 25 December. He believes this rise is because people are not dealing with their issues as they present, and only picking up the phone when things are nearing breaking point.
“By February and March, people are overwhelmed by issues in their lives. If we keep trying to keep going, without doing anything, the emotions will keep coming and won’t go away.”
If you need someone to talk to, Woodward says, “don’t put it off”.
Allow yourself to have a good time, if that’s possible
While there is no one-size-fits all rule or remedy for coping, it’s important to feel supported by others, and even more essential to explain to people – who can help – what you are going through and need. Shaw explains that if you don’t speak up, others may assume you want to be left alone, which can be isolating.
“Others will follow your lead, and so feel free to be up front about this, and people should be sensitive to your needs,” Shaw says.
"If we keep trying to keep going, without doing anything, the emotions will keep coming and won’t go away.”
Shaw also advises Australians who are grieving a loss of a friend or family member to try and make plans for Christmas and surround themselves with people.
“Allow yourself to have a good time if that is possible; this is not a betrayal of your loved one.”
Of course, Shaw advises, grieving people shouldn't push themselves socially beyond their limits, so if they are not ready for socialising, do not take on added social commitments.
Woodward agrees: “Plan for your own needs, do activities that you draw strength from…Choose your memories which also give you hope for the future”.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Lifeline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.
To access relationship support services, visit Relationships Australia.