Family loss or conflict at Christmas

Although we all desire the happy family Christmas, life does not always give us what we want. Some families struggle with loss of a loved one, split families, divorce, separation or conflict. Such struggles are keenly felt at Christmas.

Christmas is about families. For many of us, in a fairly secular society, the religious significance of Christmas is less relevant than celebrating family togetherness.

We travel to spend the festive season with our loved ones. We have our relatives stay as guests. We exchange presents and share a special meal. Most of us invest a fair amount of emotional, physical and financial energy to make Christmas a family occasion.

The significance of family at Christmas is also reflected back to us in TV shows, movies and advertising. The key themes usually being family reunions and closeness.

But how realistic is this picture of family togetherness at Christmas? How many of us realise the dream and have loving, positive interactions with our relatives without any tension or discord? And how many of us have all the important members of our family present?

Some of us will feel let down and disappointed at Christmas because the reality doesn’t live up to the ideal.

Maria and Henry are a couple who do not expect to have a particularly happy Christmas. Two of their children live overseas and they are estranged from the third.

“Christmas is difficult for us. I hope we can talk to our daughter in America on Christmas day – that’ll be nice if we can, but it is not the same as having the family around, “says Maria. “I do get a bit bitter about it. You have children so you’ll have them around at times like this. It is very disappointing that it has turned out this way.”

Maria and Henry are not alone. Many people have family members who will not be present at Christmas. Children and adults from divorced and separated families can be adversely affected, especially during the first couple of years after the split.

The change from spending Christmas with mum and dad together to attending two functions, each in a different place, is obvious. Feelings of sadness and loss will be triggered from thoughts of what used to be and what could have been.

For others who have small families, Christmas can be a very quiet celebration. Single-parent families, divorced or widowed people and single people may be alone or only have one or two people with whom to spend the day.

All the hype about Christmas and family togetherness can annoy such people. Contrasting the low-key nature of their day with the idealised big happy family Christmas might make them feel they are missing out.

One of the most difficult Christmases anyone will experience is the Christmas after a loved one has died. People in this situation are still grieving and the family aspect of Christmas can highlight the loss in a painful way.

Although there will be moments of laughter and happiness, the absence of the loved one can hang over the whole proceedings. For those suffering such a loss, Christmas sometimes becomes an ordeal that they just have to get through.

How do we make the most of Christmas when we know the day won’t be ideal?

The key here is acknowledging the loss whatever it is. Rather than trying to ignore it and hope it will go away, it is better to build it into the day.

There are a number of ways of doing this. You can light a candle, say a prayer, send loving thoughts to the people who are missing. If there has been a death in the family, you can visit the grave in the morning. Creating your own ritual to recognise the loss is particularly helpful.

By including the loss in the day, you make some space for feeling the loss and grieving. That enables you to move on and enjoy the rest of the day’s activities.

When someone special is missing on Christmas Day

  • Acknowledge the loss. Don’t try to ignore it.
  • Create a ritual. Light a candle. Say a prayer. Send loving thoughts.
  • Phone them, if possible, at a meaningful time during the day.
  • Make your ritual elaborate and take time preparing it.
  • Allow your emotions free rein when you perform the ritual.
  • Encourage yourself to enjoy the rest of the day.

Veronica’s Story

Veronica has five children and many grandchildren. She was widowed at sixty-three when her husband, Ranald, died of a chronic illness.

“Last Christmas was the first Christmas without him. I did miss him and think about him – what he’d be saying… how he’d be wondering who’s coming and how he’s going to carve the meat. But I didn’t let myself dwell on it. I know Ranald would hate me to cry. He’d be pleased we’re all together.”

Each Christmas, the family, the neighbours and friends have a game of volleyball in the afternoon. The teams are formed and the sport is taken very seriously. Ranald particularly used to enjoy it.

On Christmas day last year, the family assembled at Veronica’s place as usual. After lunch, they surprised her with a gift that recognised her loss. It made the day special and will ensure her future Christmases are also special.

A family friend had made a shield out of timber. It had eight small silver plaques around the outside. In the centre was a photo of Ranald and a piece of leather plating. Ranald’s hobby was leatherwork. On the shield were the words “The Ranald Ramalli Memorial Shield.”

“We all cried when I was presented with the shield. I am the keeper of it and each year the winning team’s name is inserted on a plaque. It was such a positive having the family remember him like that. He never wanted to be the cause of sadness. He’d be so pleased.”

This year Veronica is looking forward to Christmas. Volleyball is much of the focus. “The children are already talking about the game, who is going to be in what team and their tactics. It is really lovely.”

Georgia and Fay

For the first time, Georgia was the hostess for her family’s gathering at Christmas. She was a little nervous and had made a huge effort to make it successful.

While Georgia was dishing out the gravy, her mother, Fay, commented that it looked pale.

Tense and insulted, Georgia retorted with, “You are so critical and I am damn well sick of it.”

Fay stormed out with a loud protest, “Well!”

Fay’s brother, Norm, overheard the exchange and sent his wife to comfort Fay. He then helped a crying Georgia serve out the rest of the dinner while listening to her complaints about how her mother was always so critical of her.

When the food was on the table Norm told Fay to come and sit down. Georgia wiped away her tears, determined to enjoy the meal.

When he said Grace, Norm included the comment that “tensions can run high when the whole family is together even though everyone knows we love each other just the same.”

The air cleared, Fay and Georgia put the incident behind them.

Dealing with conflict on Xmas day

  • Monitor your alcohol consumption and don’t push others to drink.
  • Act authoritatively to defuse any argument that breaks out.
  • Encourage the combatants to move away from each other.
  • Allow each of them to separately vent their feelings to an empathetic listener.
  • Don’t try to resolve the conflict. It may be deeply rooted and attempts at resolution could sabotage the day.
  • Acknowledge the tension then expect everyone to move on.


Brendan lives in Brisbane with his mother. Every second year he spends Christmas with his father, Keith, in Mt Isa. Brendan enjoys Christmas with his dad’s family now, but the first time he was miserable.

That year Keith and his family avoided any mention of Brendan’s mother. They didn’t want to upset him. Unfortunately, it made things worse. Brendan woke up crying on Christmas morning and couldn’t be comforted.

Since then, Keith arranges for Brendan to talk to his mother and her family early on Christmas day and again in the afternoon. He ensures that his son has a present to open from his mother. Brendan is also encouraged to talk about his mother and her family as much as he needs to.

Easing the transition between split families

  • Ensure the children are aware, well ahead, of any arrangements made for Christmas day.
  • Be prompt picking them up or dropping them off.
  • Don’t argue with or undermine the other parent.
  • Allow the child to call the other parent if they want to.
  • Be understanding. All children wish their parents could be together. Put any feelings of animosity aside.

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