Following her father’s death in 2020, Lucy Dennis has been advocating for better workplace grief support, helping bereaved families share memories of their loved ones on her podcast The Grief Sofa, and more recently leading a UK-wide research project in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Support and Co-op, exploring how communities can better support local residents following a bereavement.
In June 2020 my dad died, and I was thrown into a world that felt so upside down and unfamiliar. The first year was a year of firsts, father’s day weeks after his death shortly followed by his birthday, my parents’ wedding anniversary, my birthday and then of course Christmas and New Year.
All of the firsts were painful. They came with weeks of built-up emotions; anxiety, sadness, stress and fear. How will I feel on the day? Will I be a big ball of sadness the whole day? How will I make space to enjoy any of these moments?
Returning to work following dad’s death was difficult, I knew that not only would I need to be prepared to tackle these difficult moments – I needed to also try and hold down my work, and my social life.
In the run up to my third Christmas without dad, I have some reflections and some lessons I have learnt along the way to help me navigate these tricky moments. These reflections I hope will bring some comfort to those facing their first Christmas missing a loved one, and to those working with and managing people who are grieving this holiday season.
- Christmas is not a celebration for everyone. For some Christmas is a time that magnifies their losses, whether that’s through a bereavement, or otherwise. Remember your colleagues might not want to ‘celebrate’ with the rest of the team or organisation. Try and make celebrations as optional as possible, with no stigma for those who don’t wish to attend.
- Lead the conversation, recognising the loss they might be feeling this holiday season. Talk to employees about how they are feeling – do they need some extra support on the run up to Christmas? Is there anything you can do at work to minimise the stress or pressure on them over the coming weeks?
- Be human, and remember that these conversations are happening because your colleague or employee has experienced a loss. Ask them about how they plan to remember their loved one this year – most of us love it when people ask us about our person who died. Sharing your own traditions, or ones you might have heard about could be a lovely way to show them you care and are thinking of them and their person.
- Be mindful of the language you use – sometimes Christmas can feel anything but ‘Merry’ or ‘Happy’. Perhaps try ‘I know this Christmas might be a difficult time for you; I will be thinking of you and remembering X’, ‘I remember you telling me your X loved mince pies; I will be sure to have one for them this Christmas’. Where you can, be personal. When living with grief one of the greatest gifts is to know others remember and think of the person you have lost.
The first year without dad I was dreading Christmas, and the best bit of advice I heard was to dedicate a moment of the day to him. It gives you space to release those emotions and frees up some capacity to enjoy special moments. We lit a candle for dad, said a few words and listened to some Bob Dylan (his favourite). This is now our Christmas day tradition, with the addition of hanging a special decoration for him on each of our trees.
Christmas can be one hurdle, but New Years can feel like another huge obstacle – I made it through my first Christmas without dad with quite a few tears, but also some smiles and happy memories. No one prepared me for New Year’s Eve. Everyone is different, but for me leaving my dad in 2020, the idea of ‘a fresh start’ felt incomprehensible. I didn’t want to say ‘he died last year’, and I didn’t want to feel even further away from him than I already was, but going into the New Year made that distance feel huge.
This is something I wish someone had warned me about, because I needed time to find my feet again entering the New Year.
Be gentle with yourself over the holiday season. Be gentle with the people around you. You never know what challenges people are facing, or who might be missing from their table this Christmas.
It’s the little things like this that can make all the difference to someone living with grief. We can all do more to recognise others’ grief, even if that makes us feel uncomfortable – your acknowledgment and support could mean the world of difference to those experiencing it.
Helpful resources for Grief at Christmas:
- Cruse – What to say to someone at Christmas
- Sue Ryder – Coping with grief at Christmas
- The Grief Sofa – Difficult dates