If there was ever a time of year to throw the worst of being widowed into sharp relief, you’d struggle to find a better example than Christmas. The season that seems designed to exclude the young widowed! TV, print and social media bombards us with images of happy nuclear families and couples of all ages. Everyone starts making plans for family gatherings where the absence of Them will be a presence that only you seem to feel. Long dark evenings get longer and darker and colder when your love is no longer there to cuddle. A log fire is beautiful, but some of its magic is lost when there is only you to admire it.
Chris adored Christmas. He wasn’t remotely religious but he appreciated the pagan roots of festivities and although he didn’t like to celebrate his birthday, at Christmas he would transform into Santa’s extravagant younger brother, buying gifts for friends and family. His annual tradition was to make a mix of Christmas songs on a CD to share with his friends, and he would spend months sourcing random, weird and sometimes wonderful holiday songs from indie artists to make something a bit different every year.
Since he died, I have really struggled with Christmas. More than a little bit of the magic has gone. With subsequent bereavements (my dad, my gran), and with my daughters getting older and this year (rightly) choosing to spend Christmas with their father and his family, the dread of Christmas is even bigger this year.
Last year, Christmas was reduced to a single day and many of us were denied the opportunity to see family. I didn’t get to see my Gran as she was in a care home and visits were restricted, and this will be our first Christmas since she died. If I learned anything last year it was about the importance of spending time with our loved ones, the ones that are here with us.
And so with that in mind, here are my top tips for getting through Christmas Day:
1. Don’t overthink it
I have learned that the dread and anticipation of Christmas Day (as with any big milestone or date after bereavement) is always worse than the day itself - so I am trying not to overthink it this year. It’s just a day, with a nice dinner and hopefully a couple of presents. If I need a moment because I feel over emotional, then I will take one, but I will try to stay in the moment throughout the day.
2. Focus on who is there...
I’ve described before how the absence of someone you really love can feel like a presence - the void where they should be is like a black hole with its own energy and space. It’s good to acknowledge that, but if there are people around me then I try to focus on them. Creating memories with the people that are still here is so important - I realise how much memories are worth now.
3. ...But try not to make comparisons
I’ll be completely honest, I still sometimes struggle when I’m surrounded by happy couples and whole families! The feeling of “Here’s what you could have won!” (or “why are they fighting, don’t they realise how lucky they are?”) can be overwhelming at times. I spent a long time resenting families, couples, and especially elderly couples, wondering “why me?”, but I found it was really unhelpful for me. I still feel the unfairness of it all, but I try not to compare - we never know what’s really happening for others.
4. Make new traditions
Or if not traditions, experiences! This year, my mum (who is also a widow) and I have decided to do a quiet one on our own - and we’ve booked a fancy restaurant, and a taxi home. That’s right - no cooking - and NO WASHING UP!!! Two years ago, I blew my bonus on a trip with my daughters to see my best friend in Australia. My new tradition is not to have any traditions!
5. Do what’s right for you
More than anything, it’s important that you only take on as much as you can cope with. If you are offered help, then take it, but if you can’t cope with putting up decorations, then don’t, or keep it small if there are children that must be placated. Or maybe your inner christmas bauble queen was suppressed by your partner and this year you want tinsel on everything. If shopping for presents is too much, ask family and friends to help. If you don’t feel like socialising - then don’t, but if you feel like going wild and partying hard - go for it!
All the above is (hopefully) helpful for the big day itself, but the build up to Christmas seems never ending and isn’t so easy to manage. Triggers seem to lurk around every corner - maybe your song is the theme tune to a Christmas advert. Maybe Mariah Carey wailing that “all she wants for Christmas…” holds a different meaning for you now. Perhaps the constant stream of adverts showing a family with a mum and a dad and children just magnifies the things that are missing since your partner died. Writing and receiving cards with only your name on can be upsetting the first Christmas without Them. Even without triggers, with the long dark nights the loneliness and aloneness takes some getting used to. It must take at least 3 years, because I’m not used to it yet!
I miss Chris during November and December more than at any other time of the year. I miss his Chris-mix playing in the background, and I miss choosing gifts with him. I miss hunting for gifts to surprise him and knowing that there will be surprises for me. I miss having him to put up the lights and the tree and generally share the load.
There isn’t an easy answer. After a loss like ours there will always be sadness and loss when we think of them. We can choose to put on a brave face. We can hide away. Both are valid choices. We can find ourselves enjoying and celebrating, even when a secret part of our hearts is mourning and wishing they were here. We can have a brief beautiful moment of respite when, fully present, we temporarily forget it all. Sometimes the happy, party part of me overshadows the grieving side, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is our life now: gratitude and grief, celebration and sadness - side by side and vying for our attention like the angel and the devil in the old looney toons.
The old pagan festivals that were merged with Christmas way back when were (probably) all about the renewal of the year and the return of the sun. This winter season, that’s the message I’m taking away. Longer, brighter, sunnier days are ahead, they will return. But first I have to wait for the dark days to pass. These dark months, like every grief wave, will end, eventually. The days will stretch out again, socialising will return to normal… the family holiday adverts with two parents and their children will start, and they will annoy us instead…
I hope you can find a way to enjoy the season and honour your love this Christmas.