The festive season is upon us. A time when family is important, and we reflect on the last year and the future. When we are either flung together or left alone without our usual routines. It can also be a time when problems are magnified and family absent through death, distance or estrangement are particularly missed.
As families grow and add new members, different traditions, values and beliefs are introduced. When the status quo is challenged, irritations and problems can bubble and rise to the surface.
As a systemic psychotherapist, I think of solutions to problems being located within the family. It is possible to avoid potential difficulties by introducing difference or changing the negative distressing patterns that can be quickly established in families.
When it comes to missing someone at Christmas, family members have different ways of expressing and managing their feelings, and seeing things from all points of view is not easy. Here are some ideas that may help.
Name it. Do this early and in a enabling way, taking care of the different feelings that people may have.
- Think about how you can include the absent person in the day in a way that takes into account the different needs of everyone there.
For example, consider the first Christmas after the death of a grandparent. The widow/widower and son/daughter may manage this by being quieter, not wanting to celebrate, being sad and choosing to express this or not, while at the same time, trying to make things as ‘normal’ as possible for the children. You can see there is already a melting pot for distress, anxiety and pressure.
- Suggest ways that you can remember them and what they would want for you. It is useful to do this well in advance. Sometimes, it’s helpful to do it via an group email. Here’s an example:
Dear X Y Z ,
I have been thinking about Grandma Pat lately, with Christmas coming (acknowledging the difficulty of the season) and knowing how she loved it and made it s special for us. It won’t be the same without (naming it) her, but I was wondering how we could make it a time to remember her in a happy way. I think she would like that.
One idea I had (offering an opening for other ideas and being inclusive) was that we plant a tree that will look nice at Christmas, so we can think of her every year. Perhaps something with berries? We could also go for a walk on Boxing Day to X. It was her favourite place. We could call it the Grandma Pat walk.
- Try to remember there isn’t a good or bad way, or a right or wrong way to grieve. There is no set time span and different people need different things. Be kind to each other in your difference.
- There are many more ideas, but the keys are communicating and being inclusive.
Sometimes families need more help to work these things out and to have a safe space to talk about difficult problems and feelings. Angela Betteridge is a systemic psychotherapist working in The Barn in Lewes, where she sees couples, young people and families. For more information, please contact us.
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