Whether the loss is fresh or in the past, this time of year can sharpen the pain of grief and intensify feelings of loneliness and isolation. That much was true before the pandemic, before we needed to factor in enforced distance.
“At this time, a loved one’s absence is seen and felt more starkly than ever,” says Dr Haseeb Khan Rohilla, a specialist psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. “As a result, many can feel simply overwhelmed, with no ‘escape’ for grief. People may also feel a need to suppress their sadness, which can lead to feelings of intense isolation and loneliness, even with the support of family.”
The Samaritans is a UK-wide charity that provides a free, round-the-clock, 24/7 listening service for anyone in need of someone to talk to. The organization regularly reports record levels of calls during December, with around half a million across the month, peaking at more than 10,000 on Christmas Day. Among the main issues raised by callers to the Samaritans on December 25 itself is bereavement.
While we all experience and deal with the pain of bereavement differently, Dr Haseeb urges those affected to seek out the company of others, even if they don’t always feel like it.
“Grief is natural and universal and it can present itself in many different forms and sometimes resembles major depression. Frequent crying spells, low mood, sleep disturbance and loss of appetite are common during the grieving process. Being preoccupied with one’s loss and cutting off from distractions may increase the risk of prolonged grief or could develop into some other mental morbidity. Interaction and support from family and friends at this time, where Covid-appropriate and safe, to help share the burden, is vital.”
Due to the current physical-distancing measures, a lack of physical connection can leave us all – bereaved or not – feeling extremely isolated and alone at this time. This can be particularly the case for expats living and working in the UAE.
“The UAE is home to a large expat community and due to the difficulties of travelling abroad, many will be spending the festive season alone or away from family and loved ones for the first time. Some may find this very challenging, and it will require a great deal of mental strength and determination to navigate a period which is synonymous with meeting loved ones and enjoying the company of others.”
To help navigate your way through Christmas, whether suffering from a recent or longer-term loss of a loved one, the team at The Priory suggest:
- Plan and structure your time. Decide what you want to do around the festive period and Christmas Day itself, and don’t feel coerced into ‘celebrating’ if you really would prefer not to.
- Fresh air is key for our mental health, so try to ensure you go for a walk or take part in some form of exercise at least once a day.
- Do something special for yourself. It’s important to put yourself first and not feel as though you have to do all that is traditionally expected of you. Go see your favourite movie if this is possible – anything that provides a welcome escape.
- Think about putting up festive decorations in honor and celebration of your loved ones and in recognition of how you have taken steps to cope, even if those steps have been small. Make the decorations full of memories to celebrate the role your loved one played in your life and their presence in it.
- Have age-appropriate conversations with your children about bereavement and enable them to cope with their individual loss as best you can, while dealing with your own feelings.
- It might help to enlist the support of family if that is possible to help you manage your kids during this time. Kind and thoughtful people in your life are likely to offer help, and you should not feel guilty at all about accepting what they offer.
- Recite prayers or perhaps light a candle in memory of a loved one or go through personal mementos or photos of joyful times if you feel able.
- Reach out and help others if you feel up to it. Helping others, volunteering, has the added benefit of making you feel better, as well as offering a powerful distraction – and perhaps sometimes some perspective.
- Where you can, avoid whatever aspects of the festive season you want to, whether it be shopping for presents or something else. Don’t feel compelled to do anything you don’t feel like doing or feel obliged to be constantly cheerful; those who know what you’ve been through should understand and accept your choices.
- Your grief will start to change. Don’t feel pressurized into making this one “a great festive holiday.” There will be others.
- If you are working, you may want to identify a private place in the office – maybe a room that is not used much – where you can retreat for a brief period if you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Express your emotions to those you feel able to share them with. People often feel inhibited about discussing emotions, but by choosing to broach the topic first, you might be surprised by the level of support and relief you feel.
- Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help if you can’t cope with the overwhelming negative emotions of your bereavement.
The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai has a team of mental health professionals available for help and support during the festive period.