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Dealing with death during the 'joyous' season

06 December 2022

Mental health Pastoral services
Whether you're grieving, facing the potential loss of a loved one, or are actually the loved one whose death will impact those you are leaving behind, Christmas can unfortunately be a distressing time for many people.

For patients, the lead up to the festive season can be daunting. Decorations and carols being put up or played can be a harsh reminder that for some, this may be their last Christmas. Likewise for family members who are approaching their first Christmas without their loved one by their side. For those who are in the active stage of losing a family member, the stress that comes with making them comfortable enough to enjoy their final days at this time of year can be overwhelming and a task difficult to bear. 

It’s a time where gloomy feelings clash with what is supposed to be a joyous time and the social pressure to seem happy can be crippling.

However, there are practical things you can do in the lead up to Christmas to make it easier to cope.

For the dying:

Plan ahead and decide how you would like to spend the day. Think about what would make you most comfortable and don’t place unnecessary pressure on yourself in order to meet other people’s expectations. The process of dying is a unique experience and it’s actually ok to want to be alone, if you so desire. While it might be hard for loved ones to accept, you must remember that you are a person before you’re a patient, and it’s perfectly ok to decline invitations or say no.

For the caregiver:

Listen to the person who is dying - let them speak if and when they can. You can still offer a great deal of value being present with someone who is dying, even if no words can be spoken. If you are caring for a loved one in your home, be realistic with your expectations. Essential care demands such as feeding, toileting and keeping them clean and comfortable do not disappear at Christmas. Be kind to yourself and ask others to help. People like feeling included in the process and being able to make a contribution to, or impact on, their loved one’s life in their final days, can be a gift unto itself.

Make sure you have a backup plan if things change suddenly. Most importantly, remember that feelings are a natural response to a deeply distressing time, so allow yourself to express those feelings, rather than put on a brave or smiling face to make others feel better. Continue to speak and communicate, even when death is imminent.

For the bereaved:

The anticipation of Christmas can often be worse than the day itself, but rest assured, it will come and go and you will get through it. It’s likely you will experience a range of emotions leading up to the holiday period; the feelings of anger, loneliness and sadness that you felt when you lost your loved one may re-emerge. If you have children or grandchildren, you may feel especially pressured to ‘get into the spirit’, even though it can be distressing trying to suppress your emotions.

Instead, eliminate the pressures as much as you can. Only partake in festivities you want to and are able to. If baking and cooking are normally a chore for you at Christmas time, save your energy and buy food already made or go out for a meal. Since this is an emotionally and physically draining time, get some rest and allow yourself to enjoy the happy moments.

If it’s not too painful, try to bring your loved one into the Christmas celebrations. Light a special candle in memory of them or buy a gift in their honour and give it to a person in need. It might help to evaluate family traditions and modify what you want to keep or change. Perhaps, you could even invite someone who is alone to share the day? As the event passes, you will have a sense of accomplishment because you have survived.

For St John of God Health Care’s palliative care patients and their families:

If you or your loved one is currently spending time in our palliative care unit and you would like some additional support, please reach out to our pastoral care team who can offer comfort during this difficult time. St John of God Berwick Hospital offers a program that you may wish to access called Dream a Little Dream, which is designed to grant wishes to our patients and their loved ones during end of life care. These “dreams” are designed to bring some light to what is usually a dark and sad time, creating memories for loved ones and bringing joy to patients in our care. For more information ask your nurse or pastoral practitioner. 

Jennine Dodd - Copywriter
Jennine Dodd is a copywriter for St John of God Health Care's South East Melbourne hospitals. She has more than 20 years’ experience in interviewing, and writing/editing for magazines, company publications, social media and websites.