Christmas is a time for family. The swapping of gifts, a festive pint down the pub, noisy and competitive board games, trips to the panto, walks in the winter countryside and so on. Indeed, we are relentlessly informed of our duty to gather for the annual turkey bun fight and battle for control of the remote, by a myriad of soft-focus television commercials from major retailers – which seem to start earlier every year.

However, for millions of people every year there is an empty seat at the table and Christmas celebrations become anything but. As funeral directors will know, Christmas is often one of the toughest times for bereaved people, especially the first festive season after a death.

The sense of grief that many bereaved people  feel  is often magnified at Christmas, and those closest to them don’t always know how best to support them or, indeed, sometimes what to say or how to behave. Now that we’ve dispensed with the tradition of wearing black for a longer period of mourning, the world around them may not even be aware that they are grieving. The result can be an even more profound sense of loss and isolation than they may already be feeling.

In a thought-provoking blog for Dying Matters, Kate Ibbeson talks about how she felt about Christmas just months after she lost both of her parents in quick succession.

“Being perfectly honest, not many people mentioned my Mum or Dad over that first Christmas without them both. Maybe they didn’t know how to find what they thought were the right things to say, but I really wished they had just said something, anything, to show that this was on their minds.

“Some didn’t even ask how I was feeling about getting through Christmas without my parents. Perhaps they didn’t want to risk me getting upset, but I was more upset by people maintaining a distance from me and my grief, by them not saying they were remembering the people I had lost.”

Bereaved readers of The Guardian shared their feelings in an article, last Christmas, with one commenting: “Christmas has amplified my grief. I’ve been made dizzy by the twinkling lights, festive songs and endless present-buying. The pressure to be happy has knocked me off my feet. Usually I can keep up with all the festive cheer, but this year I am not fit for the marathon.”

Says NAFD President Alison Crake: “The funeral profession has a unique role to play. As funeral directors, we know who has been recently bereaved in our local community and can reach out to those clients that we have supported previously to offer additional support over Christmas – or even just to acknowledge how they might be feeling.”

Many NAFD members now do just that and their actions are not just providing a valuable service to those in grief, they are also helping the funeral firms to get to know and support their local communities.

For example, every year thousands of people across the UK attend special Christmas memorial services organised by funeral firms, often in conjunction with their local churches.

Families who have lost loved ones throughout the past year might be invited to bring along a small framed picture of their loved one, to light a candle in their memory during the service, or place an angel on a Christmas tree with their name on it.

For example, the Tamworth Co-operative Society’s Christmas Memorial Service is now in its eighth year and, each December, a sea of lit candles is held aloft in tribute to lost loved ones at St Editha’s Church in the town.

The service is designed to enable people to both embrace the spirit of Christmas and remember relatives and friends during a period of reflection, and is now an important date on the calendar for not only those who have recently been bereaved, but those who still see it as an important event to attend many years after the death.

Knox and Son, of Orford in Suffolk, raised hundreds of pounds of a local hospice through their Christmas Memorial Service in December 2016, with more than 650 attending the event.

Every year, Dorset’s Douch Family Funeral Directors invite people to leave messages on Christmas trees in memory of loved ones. Many of the group’s seven branches have a Tree of Remembrance in their branch over the festive period.

Managing Director Nick Douch said: “We understand that the Christmas season may be a difficult time for family and friends after the loss of a loved one. A tree of remembrance is a wonderful way to capture special memories and to celebrate a life.”

An increasing number of funeral firms are now choosing  to organise events, perhaps in connection with a local church or charity, to helping bereaved families remember and honour the person they have lost and access support if they need to talk.

A couple of years ago, NAFD member Vale Funeral Service brought Santa’s Grotto to a sick local child who hadn’t been able to make it home for Christmas and other members have arranged similar Christmas surprises for people in the community who have been bereaved or are facing bereavement.

The most important support could also be the most simple.

Advice from bereavement experts  is  to  acknowledge  and talk about the person who has died, yet often this is something that doesn’t always happen as family and friends are concerned about upsetting the bereaved person further.

Adds Alison Crake: “Reaching out to your clients with a simple call or handwritten card, checking how they are doing and either inviting them to an event to remember their lost loved one or simply offering them access to support and contacts to help them at this time of year, could provide a valuable and important service to your local community as well as being a tangible illustration of the profession’s ongoing commitment to support people in their time of loss.

Another simple way that funeral directors can support bereaved people at Christmas is to make sure they can easily access information and contacts that might be helpful to them over the holiday season when many organisations close down for an extended period.

The NAFD urges its members to check with local helplines or community organisations who offer support with bereavement and communicate their festive opening times and contact details on the funeral home’s website or social media pages.

Social media is never closed, of course and on Twitter there is an annual, one-day hashtag, #BereavedatXmas, which was founded in 2013, by Kate Ibbeson, as part of her work with the Sheffield Cancer Mafia, and has become an annual source of support online, on Christmas Day, for those dealing with loss.

Kate says: “Even a few friendly words in a tweet of 140 characters seemed to make a difference to bereaved people trying to find their way through Christmas. Several people (said they) really appreciated the support and being able to share what they were feeling. Sometimes there was even genuine surprise that people had taken time out of their Christmas celebrations to support others via the hashtag and there was a sense that whether people were surrounded by family or alone, this was hugely valued.”

Useful contacts

As well as organisations offering support in your local area you can signpost bereaved families to:

  • Cruse Bereavement Care Helpline: 0844 477 9400 Email: helpline@cruse.org.uk Website: www.cruse.org.uk
  • The Bereavement Advice Centre Helpline: 0800 634 9494 Website: www.bereavementadvice.org
  • Samaritans: Helpline: 116 123 (UK)/116 123 (ROI), Email: jo@samaritans.org Website: www.samaritans.org
  • Winston’s Wish: Helpline: 08452 03 04 05, Email: info@winstonswish.org.uk Website: www.winstonswish.org.uk
  • The Compassionate Friends Helpline: 0345 123 2304 Email: helpline@tcf.org.uk Website: www.tcf.org.uk

Please check Christmas/New Year opening hours and availability.