Do you have a service that you want people to know about, that is still available during the Christmas Holiday period? Let us know at email@example.com.
Good Grief! has prepared this guide to help with some of the challenges you’ll face if a death occurs in the holidays.
It’s not completely comprehensive. But we hope it will help.
We’ve focused on NSW. We hope you can adapt this for the variations in your state or country.
Australian Christmas holidays
In Australia, as for other countries that follow the Christian calendar such as the UK and the USA, the official holidays will be:
Christmas Day – Monday 25 December, 2023
Boxing Day – Tuesday 26 December, 2023
New Year’s Day – Monday 1 January, 2024
In NSW, these are all gazetted by the state government, so businesses are expected to be closed. This means contact will be difficult on those days.
Further, it’s standard for many businesses to be effectively closed on the weekdays between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. So, services, organisations and shops will be either unavailable or poorly staffed on Wednesday 27, Thursday 28 and Friday 29 December.
Links to information on services through the holiday period:
- Other Institutions
- The death of a child
- Organ donation, death certificates and finalising the estate
- Service NSW
- Who needs to be contacted?
- Looking after yourself
Hospitals at Christmas time
Christmas closures do not extend to public hospitals. Hospitals shut down elective surgery (surgery that’s been planned) at this time. But public hospitals always have staff on duty to deal with accidents and emergencies, and to care for those suffering unavoidable illnesses that need hospitalisation.
The primary focus of private hospitals in NSW is to provide planned elective surgery. Doctors who attend these hospitals will organise their operating schedules to avoid surgery in the Christmas Holiday period.
But someone who has deteriorated instead of recovering could still be in hospital. A skeleton staff will ensure that they are kept safe. But allied professionals, such as physiotherapists and rehabilitation staff will not be available.
We know of one case where, because of this, appropriate levels of palliative care support could not be offered when a surgical patient deteriorated, and the person died. While this is unusual, it is worth keeping in mind if a person you care for is considering surgery at that time but is also frail and elderly.
You are entitled to ask the hospital team exactly what levels of care will be available if the patient suddenly deteriorates.
Other institutions at Christmas time
As you prepare for an expected death, there will be certain things you might want to know. If your family member is in, for example, an aged care facility, ask the facility in advance how a Christmas time death will be managed.
Will there be enough staff to offer the level of emotional support and practical care needed? Once again, you are entitled to be well prepared, despite the holidays. And the fact is, people do die at Christmas time.
You will find that a good facility will welcome the opportunity to share their expectations for the resident with you and will want to involve you in the planning around a possible death.
In one family we know, the Christmas Day death of the matriarch, in the 1970s, meant that forever afterwards, Christmas Day could never be celebrated joyously by her daughter and therefore her grandchildren.
But in another family, who buried their mother in the early 2000s, the Christmas Day death did not stop Christmas. It became the cause for an extra toast of champagne instead. And that family takes comfort from the fact that their matriarch enjoyed a wonderful Christmas Day lunch before she died.
Attitudes can vary, but one difficulty still remains: the fact that the people around us are in party and holiday mode and so can have difficulty identifying with or responding to the grief we are feeling. So, grief has to be managed with a sense of alienation from at least some people. This feeling can be heightened if those who would normally attend the funeral can’t be contacted because they are away.
It’s best to prepare your expectations, realising fewer people are likely to attend a funeral, if the death will be at that time of the year.
The death of a child at Christmas
The death of a child at Christmas time is especially cruel and heart-breaking. But services are available. For example, if you are in Sydney and in the Northern Beaches area, and your child with a terminal illness has had a sudden health set-back and you need respite for them and other support, ring the team at Bear Cottage Manly, on (02) 99768300.
They can talk to you about referring into the cottage if needed and can give you additional information. The cottage is part of the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. A staff member will answer the phone during the holiday period, including on public holidays.
If you need to leave a message, they will return the call within a few hours.
Funerals at Christmas Holiday time
Today, many funeral directors have customer service staff rostered to take a call. Or they have other arrangements for burials, so that you can contact them and start the processes needed, 24 hours a day, all days of the year, including the three Christmas public holidays.
Response times are important for such a significant process. So if you don’t feel your funeral house is responding quickly to your initial call, then move on.
Funeral celebrants are often sole traders who can respond quickly. Generally, if they don’t pick up the telephone immediately, they will have a recorded message outlining their availability during the holiday period.
If you want a religious service, this can be a slightly greater challenge, since Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are all days when religious ceremonies are held. This means priests, ministers and church buildings are needed on those days. And Christmas Day is the busiest day of the year for a Christian community, along with Easter Sunday. So burials cannot take place on those three Christmas holidays and must be squeezed into the remaining, fewer days. This can lead to delays.
Organ donation, death certificates and finalising the estate
You may be asked to make a decision about whether organs will be donated. Was the deceased registered as an organ donor? If so, you will be approached by the hospital to discuss this. And possibly, even if they were not registered. The staff have mechanisms for liaising with the Organ Donation Registry, and will do this regardless of the holiday period. So, talk to the hospital staff about this liaison. For more about organ donation, go to https://www.donatelife.gov.au/
A death certificate must be lodged with the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. This is usually completed by your funeral director as soon as the body is buried. So you don’t need to negotiate this. It costs nothing to lodge. But it costs $60 to have a certificate released to the relevant people. This will be added as an item on your bill for the funeral and there is usually no margin added.
However, you can also complete the form yourself on-line. The Christmas slowdown may not be noticeable, although there might be some delays. Find the application for the death certificate form at: https://onlineforms.bdm.nsw.gov.au/application/death_details
The death certificate is needed to finalise the estate by starting probate. This is the process when the Court confirms that the will is valid and the executor can start distributing the estate. Organising the estate typically takes up to a year. So, since it’s a long-term project, it makes sense to put any concerns about this work to one side and wait until entities such as legal firms are back after the Christmas break.
Most law firms will be closed on the public holidays and lightly staffed on those other days in between that we mentioned above.
Death notice in newspaper
In NSW, if you want to place a funeral or death notice in a newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald will only be closed on Christmas Day. But all News Corp newspapers will be closed for the two weeks from December 21 until January 3, 2024. However, you can still create a News Corp tribute online at https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/tributes/place-a-tribute/
Services Australia’s checklist for the time when someone dies includes:
- Following the death
- Registering the death
- Organising the funeral
- Using the death certificate
- Finalising an estate
- Looking after yourself.
For further information, their phone number is: 137 788 and their email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rostering at Service NSW over the Christmas holiday period will vary from region to region. But expect limited services to be available during the Christmas-New Year week.
Note that Service NSW mentions some payments that could be available to you through the Federal Government in the circumstance of a death. Their page about this can be found at:
Also, Service NSW says: “We won’t automatically issue you a new Medicare card, concession card or Health Care Card if your partner dies and they’re listed on your card. If you’d like a new Medicare card, you can call Medicare general enquiries and ask for one.”
This is important to know if you think you’ll be distressed by seeing the person’s name on the card. But it is something you will have to organise after the holiday period is over.
Who needs to be contacted?
Here is a checklist of who you will need to contact.
Places such as TAFE, hearing centres and the deceased’s superannuation fund will take holidays over the Christmas period, so you need to be prepared for delays in finalising any paper-work involving organisations such as these.
Looking after yourself
This is an important but often overlooked step. A useful resource is the NSW Bereavement Counselling Service’s Directory, which was updated in August 2023.
Finding a bereavement service to support you can be tricky during the holiday period. For example, the Calvary Bereavement Counselling Service which operates in Sydney’s south will be closed from December 22 until January 8.
Most bereavement services are closed for one or two weeks at Christmas time. The length of their closures is something each service will organise. So you will need to check with each service individually.
If you already have contact with a bereavement worker, ask that person how you can contact them or their service during the holiday period. Some will have crisis contacts for you.
And remember Lifeline is available all year. Sadly, they prepare for an uptake of their services during the holiday period because many people find Christmas confronting, especially if it highlights their loneliness.
A Good Death: a compassionate practical guide to prepare for the end-of-life could be a useful resource. It has an index so you can select what you want to read.
Lifeline 13 11 14.
Contacting services during the holidays when someone dies is Part 2 of the two part series titled ‘Unfortunately, death does not take a holiday.’