In the second part of a Drivetime series on mental health at Christmas, clinical psychologist Dr Paul D’Alton had some suggestions on coping skills for anyone affected by bereavement at this time of year.
So much of it comes down to adjusting your expectations, according to Dr D’Alton. He says ideas that grief follows a predictable path are not helpful. Grief is “messy” and it can feel like its going “backwards” at times. Dr D’Alton says it is totally normal for feelings of sadness to ebb and flow, sometimes at great speed.
“We will go back and forth and some of those emotions will happen within the same hour. And the closer we are to our loss, the more likely that those emotions will be like that. There’s no end. There’s no full stop. That loss will be there and the emotions around it will be there.”
The loss will always be there, but it will change over time and we can find ways of coping with it. If you have been bereaved yourself since last Christmas, one of the things that can help is to create some new traditions with your loved ones. Another thing that Dr D’Alton suggests is to put a plan in place, his strong advice is:
“Don’t leave it until the day to decide.”
Deciding beforehand means you can still limit your exposure to painful memories, by dropping in to family for an hour or two, picking what time suits you. Dr D’Alton says however hard Christmas Day can be, it doesn’t last forever.
“It’s one day, and it does pass.”
Guilt at enjoying yourself is also something to watch out for, says Dr D’Alton.
“So many people have said to me ‘When I laugh, or when I’m enjoying myself, I feel guilty.”
He says it’s important to remember that having fun is not a betrayal of someone who has passed away and that it’s OK to laugh and have fun this time of year.
In reaching out to others who have lost loved ones, the key is to “tune in” to what they need, says Dr D’Alton. Bereaved people may have different needs depending on whether the loved one died suddenly or after a long illness. Many people around them default to saying nothing, because they are afraid of upsetting them. This is not always the best course of action, says Dr D’Alton.
“What happens is, you have people then with a glass wall between them emotionally and psychologically.”
He says that generally, breaking the silence or at least finding some way of acknowledging the death is better.
“To acknowledge that loss is probably the most important thing you can do, in whatever way that’s done.”
Dr D’Alton’s advice and suggestions are tinged with compassion, something everyone can use at any time of the year.
“The reality is that most people are doing their best to manage a really difficult time.”
Dr Paul D’Alton goes into more detail about ways to reach out to family members who want to be alone at Christmas and issues around alcohol as a coping mechanism during the holiday season and finding meaning in a life that has passed in the full interview here.
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