While Christmas is a time of excitement and joy for many – others would prefer to sleep through a family gatherings, avoiding triggers of grief following a particularly painful year.
People grieve for different reasons – the loss of a grandparent, the loss of a business, a string of miscarriages or a recent divorce. Christmas may be the first public airing to family about the events of the year, and the anxiety associated with the potential outpouring of emotions can stifle the Christmas joy. Knowing how to emotionally prepare for Christmas may be the difference between hiding out in the bedroom and joining your family for an afternoon of fun in the sun.
Firstly, be aware of your triggers. A family overcoming the loss of a grandparent may wish to avoid having an empty seat ‘where grandpa used to sit’. For others, the empty seat may be a symbol of respect for the missing family member. Take a quick vote among the adult family members to decide if a move outdoors may be a welcome change of scene for grieving family members. Set up a picnic rug under a tree to avoid triggers of grief and loss before Christmas lunch. While missing family members are likely to be remembered on special occasions, for the majority of people grief is best processed in the most comfortable setting available. That is, raising your glasses to grandpa in the garden may symbolize the celebration of life, while sitting in the presence of his empty chair is more aligned with sadness and loss. Being mindful of the different stages of grief impacting on others, such as denial, anger or acceptance, may also help to acknowledge the perspectives of others during sensitive discussions relating to lost loved ones.
Secondly, be aware of the discussion topics you’re exposed following a recent loss. For example, listening to people talk about their pregnancies and newborns may trigger grief for a couple overcoming a series of miscarriages. Similarly, any reference to the word, “work” may be perceived as an insult to a young entrepreneur following a failed business venture. In fact, many innocent questions or conversations can give rise to defensive responses at Christmas. Taking offense to others is one symptom of grief. At this point, consider refilling your glass of water or checking on the kids for some light-hearted relief. It is natural for family members to show an interest in the lives of each other and asking questions is part of the annual catch-up for many relatives living apart. If anyone asks a question, you’d rather not answer, it’s ok to say, “Hey, enough about me – Let’s talk about you!” or “Hang on a second, I’ll be back” and head to the bedroom to regroup (AKA “losing it”).
The following strategies have been devised to prepare you for the onslaught of questions at Christmas and to help manage common grief responses, such as crying, taking offense, getting angry or rapidly leaving the room.
Step 1: Be prepared – Write or draw about the topic you would most like to avoid at least 24 hrs before your family gathering to clarify the issues for yourself.
Step 2: Develop a plan – Find the place you feel most relaxed and settle there. Try not to make it in front of the TV. Think outdoors, think shade and comfort. Being antisocial won’t help – It will only increase your anxiety about being perceived as rude.
Step 3: Bring props and distractions – Photos from your holiday, a good book or some massage oil. You may give or receive a massage that will completely change your outlook on the day ahead.
Step 4: Share your thoughts – Like children, adults are more likely to share their thoughts and feeling when they’re relaxed. A good conversation on Christmas Day may reveal you’re not alone in your grief – Most people have experienced loss in one form or another.
Step 5: Be kind to yourself – If you need to have a quiet Christmas, do it. We all need time to reflect and recharge. Write a note, go for a walk…and consider leaving early. There’s always next year.
For books on grief and loss, see the Quirky Kid Shoppe.
It seems that few of us are immune to the occasional family spat and many of us will experience even long term ongoing tension within our family. At no time is this more apparent than at Christmas and often when the decorations go up the gloves come off! You only have to ask around to hear stories about board games gone bad and disagreements about where to eat Christmas lunch ending in a grumpy family eating ham and cheese sandwiches at home.
Arguments may start over everything from when exactly decorations should be allowed out of storage to whether or not a hot lunch is appropriate in Sydney on a 40 degree day. Add to this the “factions” that can develop within larger families along with a good dose of general family angst and you have a recipe for disaster. Why is it that at Christmas we can experience such excitement and yet such distress all at the same time? More importantly, how can you ease the tension in the hope of little more comfort and joy?
Christmas tends to be a time of heightened expectations. That added pressure means that we are all on edge trying a little too hard to make things just right (and we all have a different idea about what “just right” means). There also tends to be the slight feeling of going stir crazy when you are spending long periods of time with a group of people that you usually only see all together once or twice a year. Also, it doesn’t help that Christmas in general is a stressful time with calendars full of events and budgets at breaking point. Many of us are so stressed that it is no wonder that tensions arise.
Family involves a lot of emotion and even a lot of history. Most of your family know which buttons to press (or not press) and you know the same about them. Family members often feel the need to give advice without being asked and parents often have trouble seeing adult children as “grown ups”. In addition to this, we don’t tend to be very polite with our family so manners go out the window and honesty steps in. Remember that when you have an emotional response that your body is likely going into fight-flight-freeze mode which means that systems throughout your body are kicking into action. Many years ago this would have helped you flee from danger and hunt down your dinner but it doesn’t help you to carve a roast or have a civil conversation with a sibling so you may just need some time out to cool down so you can deal with the situation in a level headed way. If you are in a situation of ongoing tension with your family your body may be going through this response many times throughout the day so it may not just be the brandy on the pudding and the tryptophan in the turkey that leaves you desperate for a Christmas afternoon nap.
Once your head is level, or even to prevent it becoming off kilter in the first place, here are some more tips to help minimize the family tension:
Choose your battles. Ask yourself, is it worth it? How big a deal is this really? If other family members are being negative you can make the decision to step back and not let yourself be affected by this. If its not worth mentioning or getting into a fight about, let it go.
Listen more than you talk. You don’t have to agree with the person you are talking to but you also do not need to prove that you are right about everything. On boxing day, would you rather be looking back at the fun you had as a family, or reflecting on your victory over Uncle Max’s political views? A little “Mmhmmm”, “Oh?” and “I can see how you feel” goes a long way.
Take a break and offer breaks to others if it seems like they need it. If someone is getting on your nerves, take a quick drive to pick up some more ice. If a Mum in the family is looking overwhelmed, offer to take the little ones outside for a game.
Remember that Christmas is meant to be a fun time and that it is not just about pleasing others. At the same time, it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself to be feeling hunky dory all day long. Its ok to feel annoyed, frustrated or upset by how family members are behaving but making them feel the same way will probably only make matters worse. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the slightly humid but still festively pine scented air.
The Quirky Kid team had a few more ideas:
“Use organisation and time management to keep your stress levels down in the lead up to the big day. If you are already stressed up to your eyeballs you will be more likely to blow your top when someone makes an unwelcome comment” – Lisa (Psychologist)
“Breaking up the routine with a lot of different and new activities to keep things fun and interesting for all invoice. Ask grown ups to introduce and play they old games with everyone” – Leo Rocker (Practice Manager)
“Make Xmas structured and predictable by asking family members to help with setting up or cooking different dishes. Having a plan for the day with timeframes for dinner and presents so that everyone is prepared and relaxed. Create separate areas for mingling is also helpful in avoiding tension and that plenty of music and fun activities for the kids but not too much alcohol is advisable – Kimberly O’Brien (Child Psychologist).
You can start the family encounters on a very positive note with these exclusive 100% Festive Cards Set by Quirky Kid.
Kimberley O’Brien, our principal child psychologist, discussed the use of technology in the family context with Health whiter Caroline Marcus from the Daily Telegraph. You can read her review by visiting the Daily Telegraph website.
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Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments with the media. View our media appearances to-date.