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There’s a distinct agony that comes from being barred from seeing your family, especially on important days.

When my mother and brother were blocked from travelling to Australia from Canada earlier this year because of COVID – for a long-awaited trip timed with one of my kids’ birthdays, after not seeing each other for two years – the loss reverberated throughout my family. One of my children, fox valley pulmonary medicine still absorbing many COVID-related losses and cancellations, tried their best to hold back their tears. I oscillated between feeling sunken that I’d miss my family’s embrace and exhausted from trying to help manage everyone else’s sadness.

Feeling lonely on Christmas is harder than at other times of the year, but there are strategies that can help.Credit:iStock

For many families around Australia, rising COVID-19 cases may result in plans being cancelled or being forced to celebrate Christmas without loved ones this year.

Loneliness can be gut-wrenching at any time, but being alone on Christmas is in a league of its own, says clinical psychologist Tamara Cavenett.

“It’s worse because there is less that you can do to fill that hole,” she says, noting that the usual distractions that can help people when they’re lonely – movie theatres, shopping – are closed on Christmas Day. “It definitely can be very painful.”

And, says psychologist Dr James Collett, it’s made even harder by societal expectations.

“At Christmas, we’re bombarded with messages that we should be seeing our families,” says Collett, a psychology lecturer at RMIT University. “There are all these Christmas ads, Mariah Carey’s back on in the department store.”

So, what can people who are in this challenging situation do to beat their loneliness?

A lot, say experts.

“I’d really encourage people to see if there’s someone they’d be comfortable seeing,” says Cavenett, president of The Australian Psychological Society, even if this means asking someone whether you can gate-crash their Christmas do.

Cavenett says that it may be nerve-wracking to ask, but she has helped guide numerous clients through the challenge of being alone on Christmas due to relationship breakdowns and not being invited to family functions.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone who’s said it was a disaster [to ask and attend someone else’s Christmas]. I’ve had people say it was much more enjoyable [than they thought it’d be], and it was really beautiful to see how someone does Christmas,” Cavenett says.

And for a host, it can be a really “warm experience” to make room for another person, she says.

“It’s helping someone else out at a really important time. And, to be honest, whether there’s an extra plate at the table doesn’t really make a difference.”

Dr Ruth Wells, a trauma specialist and clinical psychologist at UNSW, agrees that “making contact with other people” on Christmas Day can be incredibly useful, as “everyone else is off seeing family”.

“People could see if there’s a neighbourhood Facebook group, there might be other people who perhaps don’t have family in Australia, or Sydney [if that’s where they live],” says Wells. “There might be events that are on. If that’s not possible, choose something really nice to do for yourself for that day. Go to the beach, because everyone else is going to be inside. Or do something which just makes you feel good.”

For those who are suddenly unable to see anyone over Christmas because of COVID or other reasons, Collett recommends turning this time into an opportunity for life-enhancing reflection.

“Milestone times like Christmas are often a useful time to reflect on your values; what type of person do you want to be?” says Collett, adding that many of us don’t take the time to consider such crucial matters during the chaos of our everyday lives.

“It can be a positive thing to have a day to yourself, and kind of think about what you want to do in life. Not so much accomplishments and that sort of stuff, that’s pressure, but what type of person you want to be. One of the more pleasant overtones of Christmas is that message of pro-social acts, doing the right thing by the community. And so it makes it a good time to think about ‘What type of values do I want to embody?’”

He knows it mightn’t be second nature for a lot of people.

“People, on the whole, aren’t used to being alone. We’re social animals,” he says. “But being alone is often something we connect with relaxation, where we take a step back from our world of connections and try to relax, often with things like meditation. The message for people is really to treat themselves, do something you wouldn’t normally do … Maybe it’s as simple as a [TV] series that you haven’t watched yet and made time for.”

And, he says, people should try their best to step away from work-related chores they may be tempted to do.

Another tip for spending a day alone when we haven’t anticipated that we would be, and don’t particularly want to be, is to acknowledge those feelings.

“Sometimes these things are worse if we try to pretend they’re not there,” Collett says. “Sometimes [it helps] just accepting, ‘Yeah, I’m not having a great day, but this doesn’t have to define every day, the feeling will pass’. We all experience these feelings. Sometimes the discomfort or the shock of, ‘Oh no, I’m not feeling happy’ is actually worse than the fact that we’re not feeling happy. We beat ourselves up for it, but it’s unrealistic to expect every day of your life is going to be a perfectly sunny outlook, emotion-wise.”

For grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren on Christmas, the sadness can be particularly agonising, Cavenett says.

“I’ve seen a lot of grief and loss from grandparents about not getting to see their grandchildren on such a huge day because we all know that it’s so beautiful to watch them on Christmas morning,” she says.

Cavenett recommends grandparents arrange to watch their grandchildren open their presents in real-time on Christmas morning over FaceTime. It’s a tip that parents separated from their children can use, too.

And those who are missing family members can acknowledge that person, says Cavenett, by incorporating them into their celebration. “So I have a bauble on my Christmas tree, and it’s photos of important people,” she says.

And remember, for those who find themselves alone and struggling with mental health at Christmas, there are services to provide support, including Beyond Blue on 1800 224 636 and Lifeline on13 11 14.

As Dr Ruth Wells says: “Help is out there, and you’re not alone.”

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