Christmas isn't for everyone
Christmas can be hard for some people. This is written for The Widows' Handbook, but there are a lot of reasons why people don't want to be forced to be jolly at Christmas.
Don't push people who don't want to be part of the Christmas spirit - people who have been bereaved, particularly if they were bereaved during the Festive season, don't always want to be part of the jollities.
Invite people who struggle with Christmas along to things, and if they say no, accept the answer. Tell them the offer remains open if they change their minds. Accept that they might say yes, and then change their minds. And then give them peace and space.
Remember that if you invite grieving people, you are inviting their grief too - it's part of who they are.
Above everything, be kind.
In the bleak midwinter...
The darkness of winter is tough, especially for widows living alone. Here are a few hints and tips for making the winter feel more comfortable.
Someone once said to me to think of this time of year being when the seeds are in the ground waiting for spring. This helps me feel a bit more positive about the dark mornings.
Seasonal affective disorder
Many people get affected by changes in the seasons, but if the winter blues are lasting a long time and really affecting your life, you might have winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a low mood that gets worse in the winter. According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD (sometimes called winter depression) include:
Our sleep patterns, appetite, mood and activity are linked to levels of light, and for some people the levels of light in the winter just aren't enough. Lower levels of light can also affect our sleep-wake cycles. There a few things that might help:
Vitamin D may or may not help SAD, but the NHS recommends that people in the UK should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter.
If SAD is really affecting your life, talk to your GP. For some people, cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling, psychotherapy or antidepressants can help.
Christmas can be such an emotional time, but it can be even more challenging for widows, because it brings up a lot of memories, happy or sad. As with so many things about being a widow, there is no right or wrong. No rules. Do what you need to do. And do it as one moment, one step, one breath at a time.
Avoid the hype
Christmas is everywhere, and you can cut down your exposure to it by using ad blockers online, unsubscribing from marketing emails, watching DVDs, streaming services or BBC to avoid ads, listening to albums, podcasts, spoken word radio such as Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra or Radio 5 Live or music streaming services to avoid Christmas music on the radio, or recording live TV so you can fast-forward through ads. Shop online (at independent shops if possible) to avoid Christmas fluff, furbelows, jumpers, tinsel and endlessly looping Christmas music.
Taking the last couple of days off work before Christmas can get you out of all the Christmas talk.
Give yourself permission
Give yourself permission to laugh, cry, go out, stay in, or go to things and leave early. And whatever you plan to do, you are totally allowed to change your mind.
Don't do anything you don't want to. Fib if you need to, but just say no. You don't have to go to the party, wear the jumper, or get involved in the Secreat Santa if you don't want to.
Announce your intentions early
The first year I decided to spend Christmas afternoon with friends. The second, I decided to head off to a shepherd's hut in the Lake District. Both years I told my family early, to stop the well-intentioned invitations. I love my family, and I love spending time with them, but I just didn't want to be part of a family Christmas without Tim.
Be aware that things can get overwhelming
If you are part of a big celebration, it can get too much sometimes. Take a breath, try grounding (five things you see, four things you hear, three things you touch, two things you smell, one thing you taste), or find a quiet corner for a moment.
Let people know that you might have tough moments, and let them know whether you want to be fussed, ignored, hugged or distracted. And if you are spending it alone, you can ask someone to check in on you at some point of the day if that would help.
Have an exit strategy
If I go to a big event, I like to arrive early so that I can find places to hide if I need them, and so that I'm not walking into a full and busy room. Driving or having a taxi booked means that you can leave early if you want to – taxis can always be rescheduled if you find you are having fun.
Ignore Christmas completely
It's allowed. Buy nice non-Christmas food, stock up on non-Christmas films, binge on box sets. Shut the door on Christmas Eve and ignore the world, and then emerge on Boxing Day. Switching off social media can help you to keep Christmas away too.
Don't give in to pressure from others
Spending Christmas alone, with friends, with strangers, working, volunteering, whatever – if it's what you want to do, then just do it. Don't feel that you have to fit in.
Volunteer if you want to, bit don't do it because you feel you ought to.
Create new memories
Do something totally different. I have amazing memories of the year I went and stayed in a shepherd's hut. I stocked up on goodies, stacked my Kindle full of books, saw a friend for Christmas lunch, but for the rest of the time I looked at the view, pottered around, ate my body weight in chocolate, and slept. You can have a tradition of not having a tradition.
Buy yourself something nice
A big present, a little present – it doesn't matter what it is, but have something special just for you on Christmas Day. You can say it's from you, or from your partner, or from your cat. Whatever you want.
You are allowed to enjoy whatever it is that you are doing. Don't feel guilty.
It might be a good idea to have some plans made, otherwise you might just drift and feel worse. But don't plan so much that you feel guilty about not doing it all. Stock up on the food you need, decorate the house and tree if you want to, plan to catch up on some hobbies or some reading, go for a walk, pamper yourself with a long bath. Whatever you really fancy that you don't normally have time to do.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.