Festive Grief. It seems odd to put the two words together and yet the reality is that you or someone you know will experience grief during what is considered to be the ‘happiest time of the year’.

Christmas Eve 2016
In the tradition of my German ancestors and ancestresses, I always celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. In 2016, as I watched the lights twinkling on the Christmas tree and relaxed with my family, I reflected on what a fabulous year it had been. We’d become grandparents for the first time. The year was also lovely because it wasn’t defined by anything awful and upsetting. Five years earlier, my husband had suffered a heart attack, and the following year my father was killed in a car accident in Australia. 2016, in comparison, seemed like a breeze! And the year got bonus points for bringing us such a beautiful granddaughter. I love Christmas: stollen, lebkuchen, twinkly lights, celebrating by candlelight, delicious meal, family. My mother had always made it such a beautiful and special time in our family and I hold this time as sacred. Every memory I had of Christmas was wonderful.


But, you know, nothing ever stays the same for long. That’s the nature of life and being human.

Christmas Day 2016
The morning of Christmas Day my best friend of 18 years was found dead in her charming Cumbrian cottage. I’ll spare you the details other than to say she chose to end her life. I should probably add that she hated Christmas. (Her father had died, when she was a child, the week before Christmas. 2016 was the 40th anniversary of his passing.) Over the years she’d spent a number of Christmas Eves with me and my family (I was always trying to rewrite her script and show that Christmas could be lovely! She ended up rewriting mine!)



As we approach the seventh anniversary of her passing (something I can’t even comprehend), I’m aware that this is the first Christmas I feel Christmasy and actually feel like celebrating. I even had the tree up by December 3rd. Most days since, I’ve been singing along to Christmas tunes. I was always a 1st December-get-that-tree-up sort of girl and played those carols non-stop till my birthday on the 28th. During these years since her death, I can’t even begin to imagine how unbearable I must have been to be around. My heart was heavy. It was as if I was a shadow of my former self. This death changed me. How could I ever celebrate Christmas again? It was ALWAYS going to be the anniversary of Pam’s death. A death that was chosen. What sort of friend was I to have let this happen?

When I put up my Christmas tree the other day, some of decorations which I placed were ones Pam had given me. Did I cry? No. I smiled. “Thank you Pam,” I said. In that moment I felt nothing but joy that she’d been in my life; and, in her own way, was with me for Christmas. She’ll know, more than anyone, that come Christmas I’ll have a moment in private somewhere to shed a tear or two (or twenty!) in remembrance. For better and for worse, she is forever more inextricably linked with Christmas.

It’s inevitable as the years pass that there’ll be more deaths in my life which will add to the various layers of grief that I live with, and they too will become part of my Christmas story (hopefully not in the dramatic way that Pam chose).

I know a thing or two about grief, personally and professionally. In my years as a funeral celebrant I have walked beside those whose hearts were blown apart by grief. For some of them, the death of their loved one happens close to Christmas. For others, this time of year is also the annual reminder that they won’t be sharing a festive meal or gifts under the tree. The Christmas-time ceremonies I’m asked to officiate have such an added gravity to them. I usually come home to bed afterwards and cry for the family. 

What have I learnt? Only this: No one can tell you how to grieve or when to grieve. Even though well intentioned, NO ONE knows how you’re feeling. It’s an impossibility. The relationship you had with your loved was unique to you. People who aren’t grieving can find it rather an inconvenience that you’re not ‘on top of things’. I certainly learned who I could count on and who wasn’t able to hold space for me (pretty much everyone).

Be kind to yourself. Grief never ends but the way you live with it does. Do whatever you need to do to walk through this season with all its festivities, bright lights, fun and laughter.

Step back without apology.
Decline invitations if that feels right.
Do not feel obligated to take part in any Christmas traditions.

If you can, though, accept the love of those who are kind enough to offer it. In my darkest moments, the hugs from a loved one held me when I couldn’t hold myself. Sometimes we just have to lean into another. And if you don’t have anyone, lean against a tree. It might sound daft, but try it. Trees are strong. They’re rooted. They aren’t going to go anywhere, and they’re not going to turn you away. Nature is a balm.


What you might like to do is:

  • Place your loved one’s photo/s under the tree (if you’re having one) or somewhere they are visible
  • Talk to them as if they were in the room with you (no, you’re not going mad)
  • Create a new ritual that includes them in your festive season
  • You might like to have a bespoke decoration made with their photo or name so that it is visible each year.

Time doesn’t heal. (Whoever said ‘time is a healer’ clearly hadn’t yet been kicked in the guts by grief!)

Time does make things feel, shall we say, a little softer. But how long that takes isn’t something any of us knows until it happens.

Veronika Robinson has been officiating beautiful, bespoke ceremonies since 1995.

As a funeral celebrant, she officiates ceremonies across Cumbria and into Scotland, Lancashire and Northumberland. She is a certified Infant Loss Professional; founder of Penrith’s first Death Café; is a celebrant for the charity Gift of a Wedding. Along with her husband, Paul, she’s a tutor at Heart-led Ceremonies Celebrant Training

Veronika is the author of many books including the popular Celebrant Collection: Write That Eulogy; The Successful Celebrant; Funeral Celebrant Ceremony Planner; Wedding Celebrant Ceremony Planner; The Blessingway. Three more titles will be added in January 2024: The Gentle Celebrant’s Guide: Funerals For Children; The Discrimination-free Celebrant; The Celebrant’s Guide to the Five Elements.

Grief, Gluttony, Giving, Gratitude. Our experience of Christmas tends to fall into one or two of those areas.


Christmas has always been a cherished time in my life, made magical by parents who brought the festive season alive with enchantment and mystery. The Germanic tradition my parents passed onto me is something I still honour. And so, I celebrate on Christmas Eve by candlelight with a lovingly prepared meal and gentle time with my loved ones. This, to me, is Christmas. It’s based on simplicity, love, beauty, and kindness.

As children we would gather by the tree (one grown on our land), the scent of pine infusing the room as we sang Christmas songs in both German and English. To celebrate Christmas was to cross the threshold into another world: it was, indeed, ceremonial, and imbued with ritual, magic and love. I’ve always adored Christmas for its ability to bring heightened beauty into my life.


Carrying this beacon from my mother to my own children was no easy task. I’m not sure I ever managed to carry it off, but I will always cherish the years that my daughters were part of this season. I remember their sweet little faces as they sang songs, played instruments; and, as they grew older, their place alongside me in the kitchen preparing the celebratory food. There was nowhere in the world that I wanted to be other than with my little family all safe and happy under one roof. The whole of December was one long festive cheer. The fact my Christmas CD collection is disproportionately huge compared to any other type of music, is evidence of that. Those days are gone. Family Christmases are lost forever.



The Grief-riddled Christmas

Over the years, I’ve invited people who’ve been on their own to spend it with me (firstly, when I was single) and then later, when I had my own family. One of those people was my dearest friend Pam. She hated Christmas. Her dad had died the week before Christmas, when she was just ten years old. As you can imagine, it had a life-long impact. Over the years, she’d come and be a valued part of our family celebrations. I always hoped that by having her share Christmas, it might help to disrupt the script she had of it being a hated event. I was wrong. Christmas Day 2016: She hung herself with the dog lead. There’s no nice was of framing that event. That’s the reality of it. Here one minute. Gone the next.



There’s a level of grief that will inevitably permeate every Christmas I experience from here on in (no matter how optimistic or determined I am to free myself from that weight). I alternate between missing our laughter, shared tears, hugs, long walks, the sharing of rom-coms at the cinema, and someone I could talk to in a way I’d never been able to talk to anyone else and wanting to slap her. I find myself so angry at her level of selfishness. “Christmas day, Pam? Ffs!” And then I remember how much she hated life, and I allow myself to understand. I respect her choice, knowing she’s at peace. Oftentimes, I find myself envying her and that complete freedom she now has from all earthly crud.


Types of grief

Of course, grief isn’t a one size fits all, and there are many types of grief which can riddle the Christmas season.


There can be the death of someone we’ve loved either at Christmas or throughout the year, and the ‘festive’ season being lived without their presence can take its toll. We feel obligated to wear the face of ‘good cheer’ so as not to ruin Christmas for anyone else, while all the time we just want to scream. We’re forced to suppress our grief.


There can be the death of family life as we’ve known it, either by circumstance (kids or parents moving far away), estrangement, or with them just being unavailable due to other commitments.


For those of a more sensitive, highly empathic, humanitarian disposition, world grief can bite at the heels causing us ongoing torment. How can we have all this greed and gluttony in our faces while people around the world are starving, in war zones, having homes burnt down, stuck in prisons, or enduring the violation of their human rights. Knowing there are people sleeping rough on the streets or others who’ve gone missing, animal cruelty, and so on, can take its toll on our wellbeing. That they are strangers, makes no less an impact than if we knew them personally. Our culture doesn’t offer support for those who feel this pain acutely. Serving up a festive meal and ensuring everyone has gifts and been sent a card can feel numbing and utterly pointless when the world is falling apart.


We may experience grief when our home has been taken from us in some way, through flood, fire, violation or even because a loved one has died there. Home is meant to be our sacred space, our safe place in this world. If you like, it’s our second skin. When that’s peeled from us, we’re more vulnerable than ever. Where do we go? How can we create a sense of safety in our life?


Maybe we are grieving our health, knowing illness is taking its hold and that our days or months on earth are few. Perhaps it’s amplified by unhealed rifts with friends or family.

Perhaps we’re grieving the loss of employment or other ways we identify ourselves or measure our value.

It could be that we’re grieving the permanent loss of a relationship: friendship, partner or child.

These forms of silent grief don’t have a funeral. There’s no one to pat us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry for your pain.”


Grief may show up in the form of existential questioning. “Why am I here?” “What’s the purpose of life?” “Why do I have a charmed life while that person is on the streets?” Or maybe it’s “Why is my life so shit?” This can be as isolating as any other grief, and just as misunderstood. Like other forms of grief, there are no answers.


Grief, like water, is difficult to contain; always finding a way to seep through any available space. We use funerals to publicly share our grief, if only for a half hour or so. Mourning has no timeline. It doesn’t conform to trends, habit or belief systems. It is almost unidentifiable because it is unique to each person. No one can ever understand the landscape of our grief. For the most part, grief is an invisible parasite sometimes feasting and other times resting. All we know is that we aren’t in control of how it will behave at any given moment.


Of course, we don’t need the Christmas season to bring up all the variations of grief, but the expectation of festivity and good cheer is so mired in our cultural soup that it only heightens anything unlike itself.



Yesterday I popped out to the shop to get a red cabbage and Brussels sprouts for Christmas Eve dinner. The queues were eye watering and glacially slow but not nearly as much as the over-laden trolleys. The anger and bickering between couples and families as they fought their way through the jungle of Tesco, only highlighted just how far removed we are (culturally) from the point of Christmas. Even if the ‘cute baby Jesus story’ isn’t our thing, surely the reason for the season is actually about expressing love? If not, then WHAT IS IT FOR? Why do we continue to engage in something that seems to cause no end of stress to so many people? Every year, at least a dozen people will ask me: “Are you ready for Christmas?” That is, have I bought and wrapped loads of presents and stressed myself to the max. My answer is always the same: “I keep Christmas simple, and I don’t get overwhelmed by it.” About the only Christmas card I send now is to my mother. Gifts are for immediate family. It’s not selfish, it’s self aware. I could easily send out hundreds of cards and buy dozens of presents. These things don’t make the world a better place.


Christmas that straddles the terrain of crass commercialisation and the keeping up of appearances can only end up producing emptiness. A beautiful Christmas isn’t dependent on excess, greed, and over consumption (food, alcohol or presents). Giving isn’t determined by bank balance or baubles and tinsel.

Do we really need to buy that much food and alcohol for the couple of days that the shops are shut? Do we have to send Christmas cards to everyone we know? As with most things in life, if we’re always motivated or hindered by ‘but what will they think?’ it means we’re not being true to our self.



To give from the heart is to give of ourselves. In a world that’s riddled with pain, we can weave our way gently by touching others with sincerity and kindness. Even the smallest action can make a difference. Donating or volunteering to food banks, gifting to homeless shelters, visiting elderly people in a hospice who have no family, smiling at a stranger on the street, taking time to say to the person on the check out in hell city (supermarket), “I appreciate what you’re doing, and I hope you have a peaceful Christmas,” (ditto the people cleaning public loos) or checking on someone who has been bereaved – these acts of giving help to create a new world: a place that’s kinder and more gentle.


Gratitude is quite possibly the highest level of vibration that exists. The simplicity of just ‘being’ allows us to step beyond all cultural expectations and to be ourselves, grateful for our place in the world. Whether it’s from the perspective of ‘there, but for the grace of the Universe, go I,” or recognising that we could have been born into a different body, family, country, custom, religion or culture, and that where we are now is okay.


Do we have a roof over our head?

Do we have a meal to eat?

Do we have someone (no matter where they are geographically) we care for and who cares about us?


If we have these basics, is there a way we can share some of the good we have?


If we don’t have these, is there a way we can ask for what we need?


There will always be people with more or less than we have, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In the words of the late Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home”.

If that’s true (and I have no reason to doubt it), then what can we do to help each other enjoy that journey? Surely that’s the meaning of Christmas, and every other day of the blessed year.


On the first night Paul and I spent together, I had invited him for dinner. Afterwards, my flatmate pulled out something called The Transformation Game. It was created at Findhorn (the spiritual community in the north of Scotland).



It’s unlike any other board game I’ve ever played. Each player asks a question relevant to their life, and through the course of the game you are given answers through angel cards, life setback cards, universal feedback cards, life insight cards and there are also awareness tokens, service tokens, pain cards and the envelope for holding your personal unconscious.

You enter the game through the physical realm (birth), then graduate to the emotional, mental and spiritual levels.


For almost twenty years I have held that game up on a pedestal. Paul came to my home as a virtual stranger (apart from the fact he’d made me laugh out loud several times at my place of work ~ a school of metaphysics), and left at 5am as the man whom I would spend the rest of my life with. We literally moved in together the next day.

My question was about whether I should go to Ministerial school or have a baby. Both desires were incredibly strong. I had deep urges to become a Minister of Metaphysics, but also this daughter, somewhere in the ethers, had already told me her name and that she’d be with me soon (ha! I was pregnant six weeks later).

Paul’s question (bless his little cotton socks) was: will there be a new relationship for me?

And here we are now. In April, we’ll celebrate 20 years since we spent that first evening together.

This Christmas, I gave Paul (big drum roll) The Transformation Game. Who could ever have imagined that we’d end up playing it with our daughters?

I loved watching our girls yesterday, with their questions, receiving ‘feedback’ and how those answers they were looking for came from deep within themselves. It’s not a ‘quick’ game. You need at least about three hours. I look forward to Paul sharing his Christmas gift with us many times over the years.

Transformation. It’s such a beautiful thing!


I’m not someone who suffers loneliness. Even as a child, I loved to be on my own and would spend hours in quiet play (despite being one of eight children). I’ve always had a rich inner world, so haven’t ‘needed’ external witnesses.



And yet, I really feel the pain of loneliness in others. Oftentimes, when I’m town and I see an elderly person sitting in a café, with loneliness written all over them, I give them my brightest smile and try to warm their day. In the process, I’m doing everything I can to hold back the tears of pain. Their pain. Somehow, it ends up in my body. Empathy.

Christmas, for me, is a time of simplicity and immediate family. It’s a time to cocoon ourselves away from the world and be nestled in each other’s love. However, there have been many Christmases over the years that Paul and I have opened our home and hearts to friends who we knew would otherwise be on their own. And this Christmas will be one of those. You see, loneliness isn’t just the preserve of the elderly. It can strike anyone, of any socio-economic class and of any age.

There is a world of difference between being alone and being lonely. If you do know someone who is lonely, why not reach out your hand in friendship or support? It only takes a moment but it can make all the difference.



With my siblings, March 2012


My girls riding through the village. 2004

In my childhood home, my mum had several quotes on the kitchen wall which I’d read every day while eating my meals. This was one of them:

A smile cost nothing, but gives much.

It enriches those who receive,
without making poorer those who give.
It takes but a moment,
but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.

None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and none is so poor but that he can be made rich by it.

A smile creates happiness in the home,
fosters good will in business,
and is the countersign of friendship.
It brings rest to the weary,
cheer to the discouraged,
sunshine to the sad,
and is nature’s best antidote for trouble.

Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen,
for it is something that is of no value to anyone
until it is given away.

Some people are too tired to give you a smile.
Give them one of yours,
as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.
– Unknown

There is currently a campaign to raise awareness of loneliness. This is both inspiring and sad. How far have we humans become removed from our tribal roots?

I urge you, in amongst the Christmas hustle and bustle, to spare a thought, or a minute, or a cup of coffee or bunch of flowers for someone who is weary with loneliness. It will enrich both of your lives.

With love, Veronika xxxxxxx