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Tackling the ‘first times’ after bereavement

Dealing with the big ‘first times’ after a loved one has died – such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, Christmas or anniversaries – can be particularly upsetting. But there are some healthy ways to process your grief and find a way to remember them.

Why are ‘first times’ so tricky?

‘These events or occasions are a connection between the past and the present,’ says Caspar Williams of Cruse Bereavement Care. ‘They remind of you of who you’ve lost and what you’ve lost.’

Linda Magistris, chief executive and founder of The Good Grief Trust says first times can make you feel like your future has been taken away. ‘It’s a reminder of all the plans you were making, as a couple or a family,’ she says. ‘These occasions aren’t just a reminder of your loss but the future you’ve lost, too.’

Preparing for special occasions

Many of us want to ignore these first times because they can be so painful. Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works, says, ‘Our natural instinct is to try to pretend it isn’t happening, squashing down those feelings, which doesn’t work.’ But consciously acknowledging that the day is coming up can help you feel more in control of your emotions.

Don’t worry if you’re not feeling sad on these occasions. Grief is very different day to day, so you might actually be OK on the day itself. If that happens, don’t feel guilty if you don’t get upset. ‘You might worry that if you’re not feeling sad, it means you didn’t love them enough,’ Caspar says. ‘But that’s a normal, healthy way to feel.’

Marking the occasion

If you do want to remember your loved one during a significant ‘first time’ – and it’s OK if you don’t – there are a number of ways you could do so.

Julia recommends finding a focus for your grief. ‘Try lighting a candle, reading some poetry, or writing a letter to your loved one,’ she says. Writing down your thoughts and feelings, and physically looking at them on paper, means you can see them from a different perspective, which helps you process them.

Another idea is creating a memory box. ‘Put in photos, drawings, or mementos, like shells from a beach,’ Linda says. You could start the box on this first occasion then add to it over the years, bringing it out for special events (or whenever you want to) to remember your loved one.

Help a friend dealing with grief

Supporting a friend through their grief is important, but don’t push them. ‘With the best intentions, friends can go into solution-focused help, such as “You should try this or that”,’ says Caspar. ‘Instead, just be there for them, and listen to what they say without judgement.’ If you’re not sure how to respond, something simple like ‘that sounds really tough’ shows you’re actively listening.

The fear of saying the wrong thing can stop many of us reaching out. ‘We end up saying nothing, which can make the bereaved person feel like their loved one has been forgotten,’ says Linda.

She recommends looking through your phone or social media for pictures of the person who has died, putting them together in a book, and giving it to your friend on the day. ‘They may never have seen these photos before, so it’s lovely for them to see a different side to their loved one,’ she says. ‘It also shows you still remember them.’

Whatever you do for the ‘first time’ following a bereavement is completely up to you. ‘There are no rules,’ says Linda. ‘The main thing is not to put too much pressure on yourself to feel or behave a certain way.’

If you do want some support, contact a friend, family member or one of the organisations below. To help children dealing with bereavement, read our guide, or watch these ‘Year Since’ videos.

Online resources for grief and bereavement

We've partnered with Cruse to create useful videos and resources to support those going through a bereavement. If you or someone you know is grieving the loss of a loved one, download our guide for advice on how to provide the best help and support.

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