Facing Christmas following loss

How do we do Christmas after losing someone so precious? How do we prepare for festivities that seem like we’re celebrating and having fun whilst such an important person is no longer here with us?

Thoughts and memories crowd in, take over and then literally overwhelm.

Every day I miss my mum like crazy and with the onset of all things Christmas, alongside her first memorial coming up later this month, I currently find everything in each day a massive trigger.  Of course, we expect waves of grief, but do we ever expect the white-water rapids that grab us and jostle us along a very bumpy journey until we momentarily are delivered to smoother waters, only to then hit another patch of rapids, or worse – an unexpected waterfall.  Tumbling down; bumped, bruised, and exhausted we again seek the safety of the shore.  We look ahead, craving the still waters to make our exhausting journey that little bit easier. 

I have compiled this blog over several days.  So many changeable emotions and reactions that I find in a given day I can be in conflict with my thoughts and reactions from the previous day. There have been times when I’m feeling reflective and times when I’ve predominantly been hurting and lost in that pain.   When I am hurting, all I can think is that I do not want to face more pain. I do not want to put on a brave face and do all the things that we’d have done together, only now in a different way.  I want it to have not changed; I want my mum to still be here.   Without her I feel torn; pulled down by my own grief yet also pulled forward by my love and protectiveness, of my family together with their most valued support. I can’t let them down.  I don’t want to deal with Christmas, not just yet, I need more time.  I love this time of year and love Christmas.   I do not want to be the person who dreads Xmas and all the festivities of the month.

13 December 2020 – mums 1st memorial. (Photo taken by Debbie Walker)

It just hurts so much to face it now without my mum and other loved ones that I have lost this past year. Yet I cannot waste time.  I know that while we have our now, that we are fortunate. We must enjoy now for none of us know what tomorrow brings, and all we can ever do is make today the best that we can. Thinking ahead can make me feel sad, instead of the joy and excitement I used to get, I have felt fear of the pain, the overwhelming sense of loss that can return at the slightest trigger…and a loss not just from the person themselves, but the loss of all associations. Loss of our routines, our traditions. We have to change those now, but in this year of 2020 and the Covid-19 restrictions, I can’t even understand yet what we may be able to do and what we can’t.  There’s no anchor. Nothing solid to hold onto. Nothing certain. No sense of control. 

Christmas with mum was a time where we shared so much.  From being a child myself, to having and including children of my own we made annual visits together to Fenwick’s Christmas window display, in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.  In recent years we would also take the train to London for girly shopping trips, meals and entertainment.  There were many visits to the theatre, and a wonderful visit to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. We’ve been to Christmas Markets in various cities and enjoyed sampling cocktails amongst the warm atmosphere of a lively pub or two.  It wasn’t just the big stuff though.  It was the day to day delights too.  The sharing of excitement at purchasing new decorations, the anticipation of a surprise gift to give.  Even sharing the joy of a new or favourite seasonal TV show.  

Reflection and thoughts

At Christmas time, (and indeed any significant event whether a private family one, a national festivity or religious event) …how do we face doing what we normally did? Especially when normal no longer exists.  We no longer have the comfort of certainty and familiarity that repeated family traditions bring.  Things have changed.   Do we now stop, or can we do we do it in our lost loved one’s memory? Do we do it for our family or can we even do it for ourselves?

When we’ve lost someone, there are so many every-day triggers to such raw emotion. Making us feel vulnerable, sad, lost, bewildered, bereft and much more.  Especially in the lead upto Christmas.  This is where we need a plan.  How do we do this? How do we cope with such expansive emotions?

It’s been said before, and is going to be said again – Grief is a lonely place.  It’s personal to each of us.  It’s based upon our relationship with that person, our own life experiences upto this point, and to some extent, who we have in our life now.  And so, by it’s own nature, it’s going to bring about an awareness of feeling alone in it, and if not all of the time, then at least some of it, and most certainly at Christmas time.

Dealing with Christmas when grieving is tough (understatement)… and it’s not just the one day, all things in the Christmas run up can become overwhelming.  I find it so.   This is not ‘officially’ my first Christmas without my mum, but last year was all a bit of a blur. Much was lost to the shock and trauma I experienced only weeks prior to Christmas day.  Last year I just got through, somehow.  I think the adrenaline, along with the support of my family that, kept me going.  I don’t remember much.  So this year, it’s the lead up which is my first.  And it’s hard. So very hard. There are my emotional reactions giving me a good kick at any given time, as mentioned above, and then there’s the practical side of the Christmas preparation, still to deal with.  Now, of course no one HAS to do anything. This is not about what we HAVE to do.  It’s for those of you, who like me, want to do Christmas but just don’t know how to anymore, for too much has changed. So many things to do, but how to approach doing them.  I’ve really found this aspect so difficult.  Some days, I have no energy, I don’t sleep well, I feel anxious.  Some days I can do more.  Some days, I have managed to get started only to be knocked back down by a lovely memory that springs to the fore but the pain mirrors the joy of that moment and I become lost, engulfed by sorrow and heartache rendering me unable to continue for the moment.  Some days I wonder how do I send cards, when I’ve always hand made the majority of them and put so much of my emotional energy into them, and right now, I’ve lost my desire to be creative. It’s just disappeared. How do I decorate the house when I feel so sad? Putting up the tree feels wrong.  Buying and wrapping presents even feels different, for there are some days when I just feel what’s the point?

I don’t want to feel like this all of the time. I want to be able to cope with my feelings of grief separately, so that I can make a good Christmas for, and with, my family and friends who are with me now.  So that we can continue to make our own memories and enjoy each other, whilst we can still do so.  

How can we do it?

Firstly, something that I am forever being reminded but unfortunately quickly forget, we need to look after ourselves and our well-being.  To recognise that the amount of energy taken from all the emotion can leave us feeling depleted and therefore far less resilient.  We need to rest more, lower personal expectations of ourselves, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle where eating and sleeping are given a higher priority than we may give at other times. Find fun where you can. Find ways to ensure there is laughter in each day – whether that be a tv programme, a radio broadcast, or good company with family or friends (again, not easy during Covid Lockdowns, but phone and video calls can still be made)

Although no one else can experience our pain like we do, or miss a person the way only we can….I have discovered the release that comes from sharing and the healing that follows this, bringing about a sense of feeling less alone, albeit temporarily whilst in grief, but still far less so alone.  And with that comes a resilience to enable us to cope better with the more difficult days.  Until we come to the next set of rapids and are once again swept further along our turbulent journey.   Nevertheless, the important thing is to remember to share and to talk, and to do so with someone whom can give you what you need in that moment.  That person may differ from one day to the next, as our emotions and needs change.  And try to tell them what you do need, for it may not be as obvious as you think.  For me it’s often the space to talk, whilst being offered comfort, understanding and reassurance.  For you it may be different. We each have different needs, and even these may change from day to day. Sometimes, all we’d like to do is to talk of the person, share some good memories and listen to other people’s stories of that person … at other times, it maybe that we need to talk about how we’re feeling ourselves in that day or moment.  Whatever it is, do try to let the other person know what it is you need – that’s the only way that they can know! (I’m still practicing that part myself !)

Remember, shouting out for a helping hand along the way can enable the more challenging days to be met with more strength – When we are engulfed by the chaos and maelstrom of the rapids of grief and losing sight of all else; we can still reach out for help and support…After all, who would travel down cascading and endless rapids, without at least a life jacket?

Living in the moment– having seen memes, posters and read articles about this, it always seemed an idealistic way of saying don’t dwell on the past and don’t fear the future.  A sentiment to remind us to get back up and get on.   Now however, this approach has become my mantra to get me through some of the most difficult moments, or even days.   When there’s so much pain, an onslaught of it with no chance to breathe in-between, then there may be very little alternative than to create space in any way possible. A protected space in which we can begin to process and eventually to heal. This is where mindfulness helps; Keeping in the moment.

By staying in the day we’re in simplifies things. No brain clutter to distract or to suck up precious mental energy.  Just today to think about. Today to make our own.   As we go about focusing on today, I believe that in the background our brain gets chance to rest and therefore its own time to then begin the processing of yesterday’s pain. It also allows us to recognise that these difficult feelings wont last forever. We only have a day to deal with. Just a day.  Tomorrow may be better, but we can think about that tomorrow. Keep in today.

Despite the pain of loss and who is no longer here with us, I think that we must keep going. We create new memories and try to gather as much strength comfort and warmth from the memory’s past. Yes it hurts, but would it be worse to just stop?  I ask myself if I want my own children never to enjoy Christmas again? We lost my Nanna, (mum’s mum) in the month of December too.  So I saw my mum go through this same experience, and now have a full appreciation of what she endured at that time, and in the years hence. At the time, my younger self encouraged my mum to continue; to put one foot in front of the other and to put up her Christmas Tree; to make it a special time for us and for herself. For I knew that’s what my Nanna would have wanted. And I wanted us to remember and to honour Nanna and her memory, with a smile, for she too loved the fun and festivity that Christmas brings us.  She would delight at the beautiful colours adorning her home and tree; the family gathering for time together, playing games and sharing delicious treats.  To give that up now, would feel like turning our backs on what was a very integral part of my Nanna’s persona.  After all, like so many of her own generation, following traumatic and devastating loss during the war and hard years that followed there was a learning to always be grateful for, and make the most of all that she had, in any given day.   And so, mum too continued in the same stoic way.  She made our Christmases wonderful.  She worked hard and loved to see our delight in the surprise gifts that she gave to us.  Her own sense of fun, her joy of social activities and of entertaining came shining through. This was in time extended to her grandchildren, and they experienced the most wonderful times with their beloved Grandma and especially at Christmas time.  In turn, she has taught me. From my Nanna to mum and now to me; I took the baton, to be passed on to my own children; my joy of family. Of sharing time together, making our own fun and creating time for activities together from which memories last a lifetime – and longer. 

I do it for me…I will make efforts to continue traditions, and to make new ones. I do it to honour my mum, her memory, and in my own way to continue our bond …I do it also for our own children. For now, and in turn for their own futures.  I hope to pass on a strength, and a resilience for them to carry the baton forward for our future generations to come.  We all pass on our own baton, and I want mine to be one of resilience, strength, love, happiness and joy – despite the trials and ordeals that life presents us with. One which retains that important sense of fun. Of knowing that each past generation is with us; is within us, thus helping us, as we forge ahead in our own new worlds to live and to discover.  

For those of you whom do not have children in your life, then perhaps it may help to consider who you may be influencing, and who is learning from you and your actions, for undoubtedly whether you realise it or not, you will be teaching and influencing someone in your life.                                             

So for the practical side of things; putting up the tree, card writing, food and gift preparation. How can we do all this, and do it with joy, when each and every task can feel so impossible, so painful?

From what I’ve learnt so far, and am still learning every single day, is that we would do well to find different ways to do the traditional things that we want to continue doing.  Ask for help. Friends and family probably don’t know what we need, and so it’s upto us to let them know, and to ask.  Change your self-expectations.  If you can only send a couple of cards, or if you can only put up the tree and no other decorations or perhaps you can’t face cooking a big dinner; then let that be okay, and perhaps look to do it a new way.  We must learn to focus on what we can do and less so on what we cant.  That is a strong message that has been passed on from my beloved and belated Aunty Val; and what a valuable lesson it is.

So, these are the things that I’m trying. One day at a time. One task at a time. Seeking, and accepting help even when I believe that I ‘should’ be able to do it all.  Removing pressure and expectations of anything being the same. For it clearly isn’t.  And importantly, I’m trying to be open for the moments of joy and fun to still shine through, for they are still there. They may be less visible at the moment, but they still exist and I believe that they can grow again in time to come. When healing has had a bit more time.

In Summary

I lost my mum in the month of December.  That makes this month her memorial so not only Christmas to face, but also the memory of the day we lost her.  Not too long ago, I read an article about not letting life be defined by the final event; Our departure. The article compared life with a story.  Posing the contemplation do we consider the story, or the last full stop at the end of the last sentence?  Of course the story is so much more than the last sentence or indeed the final full stop.  And so the life of our loved one must be so much more than the end of it. As the saying goes, life is about living, about what we do with our time that we have and the people that we have with us today. Yes, of course we remember those who’ve passed. And that can be incredibly painful at times. But we can honour them be keeping on, by taking them with us in our own journey, recalling and sharing stories, and laughing in our fond memories.

Of course, this positivity doesn’t just come overnight, and grief takes as long as it takes.  There are many hurdles, and many, many times where we fall and need to find a way to get back up again.  But if we have an inspiration; An aspiration. A personal vision in our sight of how we want Christmas, and indeed future life to look … then we can take each day, one at a time; climb each hill to be climbed, and slowly find ourselves on a path to recovery, and with it, an enjoyment of life and all that’s still to be celebrated in it. Having our vision of where we’re headed reminds us that we have a direction and recognising from where we started, gives us a sense of how far we’ve come; of our continued progress.  And my vision is one of future Christmas times enjoying and sharing with my family and friends all the good things that I have learned to enjoy and appreciate, over a life-time.  To continue sharing with my own children the joy of Christmas and all that I hold dear about this special time of year.

And so the magic of Christmas has been instilled in me for a lifetime, and I do not want to lose that too. I may have to endure the physical loss of my loved ones, and will undoubtedly have to find new ways to do some things.  But I want our children and their children to go on and enjoy the magic of Christmas too; to feel the joy of family and to know that they have been preceded by generations before them who all share in that joy with them.

I have written this article primarily based upon the loss of my mum, for it is the loss of her that impacts me the most on a daily basis, and upon how I manage throughout this Christmas period.  However, in the past 12 months, I have also lost my cherished Aunty and two beloved Uncles, along with some very dear friends.  I also lost my job from which I’d served 35 years.  All in the year of Covid-19, and the subsequent restrictions that has brought us.   So, I am aware that there are many types of loss, many different relationships and we will all have our own experience of them. Forgive me if what I write is not appropriate to your own. I have written this with my own experience and learning in mind and apologise if I have inadvertently caused any offense or discomfort by my article for it certainly is not intended.

Photo by Debbie Walker

I’d like to wish each of you a peaceful, and yet joyous Festive season, extending my condolences for your own loss(es) and a hope that my article has been helpful in some small way. And for those whom do not celebrate Christmas due to your own religion, culture or simply for personal reasons, then perhaps you can still appreciate some of my reflections and in turn also find something of comfort, or simply a resonance through the shared experience of loss

Please do feel free to share your thoughts and comments.  And if you have some insightful words of inspiration that can help those of us who’ve lost loved ones and are facing this time of National Holiday and time of festivity without them, please do share.

(c) Debbie Walker


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