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Coping with feelings of loss this Christmas

Jean Wooldridge, who works on the Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline, has outlined some suggestions for managing feelings of loss during the festive period.

With Christmas and the new year fast approaching, people often find this a time for reflection and thinking about those they have lost.

These feelings can be triggered not just by a bereavement, but also after a diagnosis of dementia. The changes in someone’s personality and behaviour can lead to feelings of loss in the person with the condition and those supporting and caring for them.

Acknowledge that everyone responds to grief differently

Look within yourself and ask yourself how you are feeling – not what you should be feeling. Acknowledging the range of emotions that you’re going through can be helpful. Try not to judge them – or yourself – but recognise and accept them as part of your grief.

It is normal to experience emotions such as denial, anger, sadness, or feelings of anxiety or guilt, and these may continue for some time. They may come over you in waves and at unexpected times – for example, if you hear a piece of music that you associate with the person you have lost.

Recognising this as a natural reaction to grief can help you feel more in control.

Be kind to yourself

Try keeping a grief diary to write down your feelings and thoughts, and also to note the progress you are making day by day. Take things one day at a time and forgive yourself if things don’t go to plan. Tell yourself it’s okay if you don’t feel up to much on some days.

Do whatever makes you feel cared for, such as ordering a takeaway so you don’t have to cook, having a warm bath, making a phone call to a friend or having a cuddle with a pet.

Try to get outside in nature, if you can, to help you feel more connected to the present. Try mindfulness activities, which you can find online or in apps – these often include natural sounds and images to focus on if you aren’t able to go outside.

Identify sources of support

Having a conversation with a specialist dementia nurse who understands what you are going through and has knowledge of different services that offer support could help you with your feelings of grief and loss.

Our free Dementia Helpline is a vital source of support and can empower you to speak about your own needs.

You can also speak to your GP or other healthcare professionals, who can then signpost you to bereavement counselling or support services like Cruse Bereavement Support.

Open up conversations around death and dying with friends and family

Whether you are a professional supporting a person with dementia or a family member, you can start having gentle conversations with them about their future.

These conversations can be short, informal chats over a period of time.

You could talk about how things might look next week, or even next year, before finally moving on to discuss what care and support they might need at the end of life.

Having these conversations early can help everyone understand the person’s wishes and reduce stress around making future decisions, especially in a crisis situation where they need to be made quickly.

Asking the person with dementia, “What matters to you?” is a good way of identifying what is important to them.

Support the person with dementia with their own grief

If someone close to the person with dementia has died, try to be honest with them. They have as much right to grieve as anyone else.

Talking to the person about what has happened and giving them time to ask questions can help them feel supported during what can be a challenging process. Offer reassurance, listen to their concerns and talk about the person they are missing.

If appropriate, you could also involve the person with dementia in any funeral arrangements.

However, if the person’s dementia is more advanced, or if they are struggling to retain or process the information, this can make grieving more challenging. They may not be able to express how they are feeling, so be aware of any changes in behaviour that could signify they are struggling to cope with their grief.

If the person with dementia is becoming repeatedly distressed when the death of a loved one is mentioned, families sometimes feel it is better not to keep bringing it up and find other ways to talk about a missing relative. If you would like support with this, please call our Helpline to talk to an Admiral Nurse, who can help you find the best way forward.