As streets light up with decorations and music fills the air, some of us are caught in an uncomfortable place between joyful excitement and deep sadness. Happy smiles and seasonal greetings are a reminder that somebody near and dear to us is no longer here or that suffering is still part of our world. Enjoying the festivities can feel like a struggle, disloyal, or even impossible.

Feelings of loss and pain can be especially hard during this time, and if you’re struggling this Christmas time it can be supportive to know that you are not alone. While we may want to “cancel Christmas”, this is often not an option. If there are children we have to care for, or other family members who are excited to celebrate, we can feel forced into suppressing our sadness and painting on a happy face.

Of course, grief is not always limited to the physical loss of a loved one. There are many other reasons that can turn our blue skies grey, such as a loved one (or yourself) battling a chronic illness, or a close relative living with a serious condition.

Planning the season ahead of time can be a good way to preempt the most difficult emotions we may have to confront this Christmas time. Spend a while thinking about which festivities and Christmas rituals you feel comfortable participating in and which are still too painful.

Another important contribution we can make is by honouring our lost loved one. Their absence during Christmas can feel stronger than ever, which is why acknowledging them rather than ignoring or deflecting, if a valuable way to engage with our feelings. You can create a small dedication to them, by including their names in a thanksgiving prayer before dinner or including photographs of our loved ones when we decorate our homes.

Christmas can be a testing time of year at the best of times, so remember that it is always okay to ask for help. Try to open up to friends and loved ones, and spend time in their company. If you don’t feel able to do this, there are still people you can turn to, including your therapist or other mental health professionals, who are ready to listen and provide support.

If you’re not up to a big celebration this year, or need a serious change in routine, why not spend some time helping others? Volunteering in Malta is already a big tradition for many people during Christmas, so finding opportunities to spread a little joy to others is a relatively simple way to engage, as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing.

Ultimately, if the festive period gets too much, make sure you take some time out for yourself. Being kind to yourself at Christmas is essential. While it may help to be around others, remember not to overwhelm yourself with situations where you may feel obliged to be cheerful. Feel your emotions without suppressing them, for fear of disappointing others – in the long run, that’s a far healthier and kinder way to be.

Pete Farrugia is a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist. In his profession he explores the intersection of psychosocial wellbeing, spiritual development, and creative expression.