tips for how to deal with grief – especially at Christmas

As Christmas approaches many of us find it difficult to deal with our grief. (I am writing this a mother who had a 20-year old son die, a husband die at 35, and about four years experience as a bereavement counsellor many years ago)

Grief is a necessity and privilege, it stems from giving and receiving love. Just as love doesn’t end with death, neither does grief end with the funeral: sometimes our grief is more painful.

There are no rules or simple ways to take away the pain. Sights, sounds and smells bring back pleasure as well as pain and it’s important to find people who will support you, and most importantly, allow you to be yourself.

So, how will you cope with Christmas? Will you make a plan or take it as it comes? Most people find advance planning helpful; just remember that plans are not carved in stone and they can be changed.

By the time the first Christmas arrives most of us have realised that ignoring grief does not make it go away. Conversely, talking about our pain does not make grief worse, although it may feel that way.

Often friends stop talking about the deceased person, (or you may with people who don’t know the person you are grieving). They assume that when you cry they have made you feel bad – as if their talk could increase our pain – and it’s difficult to explain to them that crying is beneficial. I believe it is because they feel uncomfortable with tears rather than their concern for us that stops them talking about our loved one. And we often oblige by not upsetting people … funny how the griever often supports the friend – weird but true.

Friends and family may encourage you to keep active, or to “get on with life”, “you have to let her go’ and other non-helpful advice such as “he wouldn’t want to you keep crying”. I am sure you have heard these and other such homilies.

Keeping busy will not heal grief, in fact, experience shows it often increases our stress and merely postpones or denies the need to talk, feel, and cry. Time heals grief ‘they’ say: not true. It’s what we do with the time that does the healing – ask anyone who has used medication to dull the pain: when the pills, or alcohol, are stopped our pain is still there, just waiting for us to deal with it.

  • Remember you are not alone. Find someone to talk to.
  • Use your loved ones name. Talk about them, good times, bad times, and other holiday seasons.
  • Eliminate as much stress as possible. Plan ahead, keep it simple. Ignore others expectations.
  • Involve your children in your discussions and planning – it will help their grief too.
  • Do what’s right for you & your family, don’t be pressured into doing things that aren’t OK
  • Use whatever form of spirituality is meaningful to you.
  • Pace yourself physically and emotionally, be tolerant of your limitations…grief is tiring!
  • Christmas will come no matter how much you may not want it. You will survive.
  • Remember the worst has already happened!
  • Take one day at a time, one hour at a time.
  • Anticipation of the event is always worse than the actual day.


  • Buy a special gift and donate it to a charity in your loved ones name
  • Burn a candle over Christmas to symbolise their presence in your thoughts.
  • Write a letter to them in your journal. Describe how Christmas is without them.
  • Change holiday habits: Christmas breakfast instead of dinner; restaurant instead of home.
  • Keep all your holiday habits. For some, the familiar is reassuring.
  • Expressing your feelings honestly always helps.
  • Volunteer to work at the local mission, old folks home.
  • Have a special toast to absent loved ones before the main meal.
  • Tie a yellow remembrance ribbon on the Christmas tree – your own tree, or the town one.
  • Set aside an evening to look at photos and talk about him or her.
  • Make a memory book. Children find this really helpful too.
  • Make a list of things you found helpful, share it with others. Keep for next year!

Victoria Square used to be Market Square

Just over the river behind the Christchurch Town Hall and Convention Centre is Victoria Square. (New Zealand) In 1850, swamp covered Christchurch and settlers had to traverse bog to get home after shopping in the market.

Christchurch town hall
Christchurch Town Hall

Those early settlers must have been sorely disillusioned when they first saw the soggy land of their dreams, however they weren’t the first to inhabit this piece of land.

Between 1000 and 1500, the indigenous Maori (who had arrived here from the Pacific) had a settlement here, called Puari. It stretched east from the Otakaro River, and was home for around 800 Waitaha people who gathered eels, whitebait, native trout, ducks, and flounder here.

Pou Pou and ti kouka (cabbage tree)

To mark this village, and acknowledge the cultural value of the site to the Ngai Tahu iwi, a special poupou was commissioned as part of the 1990 commemorations of the 1840 signing of The Treaty of Waitangi: the six-metre, totara, poupou (carved by a local man) was erected in 1994.

The Otakaro river was renamed the Avvon – after a Scottish river – then this too was changed to Avon, and the first bridge to span the river was a cart bridge in 1852. Ten years later the first public lamp was lit at the same market street bridge but kerosene was considered too expensive and the town lighting project was halted for two years.

A post and chain fence (some portions are still in use) was built along in the 1860s to save ‘innocent children and tipsy men alike’ from drowning, as some 30 people had drowned in what now seems an extremely placid river. A new iron bridge replaced the old one in 1864.

A police station and lock-up was built in Market Square (by the 1870s it was being used as a women’s prison), and it also had a blacksmith’s forge and stockyards where farmers tethered their horses while they sold produce. This was the centre of the rural community of Christchurch –the village centre.

Nevertheless the traffic-census on the bridge on one day in 1862 shows how vital Market Square was.

  • 10 bullock drays with 58 bullocksI've been buying a vanilla ice from here since i was a child
  • 51 horse drays with 6o horses
  • 36 carts with fifty-one horses
  • 199 saddle horses
  • 20 cattle
  • 204 sheep
  • One donkey and cart
  • 1000 foot traffic.

An 1861 photo shows wooden homes and business and a post office. One long building with a white gable and verandas around three sides was the Market Hall, and the ‘coffee-palace’ attached to it was most likely the first coffee shop in Christchurch.

In the late 1800s – when the old square was considered an eyesore – the area was renamed Victoria Square to commemorate the queens diamond jubilee. It was put in order with lawns, flowerbeds, and willow trees that are believed to be from cuttings off a tree at Napoleons grave at St Helena.

In the early 1900s the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York lay the foundation stone for the commissioned statue of Queen Victoria. It was also a jubilee memorial to the pioneers of Canterbury, and to those who had died in the Boer War. By the time the statue was unveiled, the queen had died.

Victoria Square has changed many times over the years – the queen has been moved around like a chess piece, the road closed, band rotundas built and removed, and in 1931 a fountain was built. The biggest change came with its new neighbour – the Town Hall, built in the 1960s: it too sits on a historical site.

Capt Cook shares the park with Queen Victoria

The Limes Hospital – where one of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Christchurch was held – is remembered by The Limes Room. It also has the two largest hand-blown chandeliers in the Southern Hemisphere: made in two pieces, it’s banded with copper with 104 bulbs in each.

Another artwork in the Town Hall is a tapestry that celebrates New Zealand women gaining the vote in 1893 – the first country in the world to achieve this. A plaque also commemorates Douglas Lilburn, New Zealands premier composer.

The whole area is a cornucopia of history – invisible to those who hurry past.

© Heather Campbell Hapeta