07 December 2021

When Christmas is Hard (Facing the Season after Loss)

Christmas Eve 2020

Christmas was always my favourite time of the year – until I found myself facing Christmas as a sole parent in 2016.

Five years on, I can look back from a new perspective where the grief has healed and the loss no longer stings. We have settled in to our new normal, and can reminisce about our awesome Christmases as a “whole family” without an ache.

But I remember that first Christmas and my heart goes out to those of you who are facing your own first Christmas after a devastating loss.

Christmas Eve 2020

Grief has a way of making the memories of good-times-past unbearably painful. The days marking anniversaries and celebrations are so much tougher than the regular days. The contrast between “what used to be” and “what now is” is just so stark in the days, months and years that follow loss. And Christmas is one of the toughest.

I remember how it felt, that first Christmas after I was separated. If you are there right now, I want you to know that it truly won’t always feel like this (even though it really feels like it always will).

Christmas Family 2008

For our family, Christmas had always been a golden day - the best day of the year with no fights, no growling, just food and fun and warm fuzzies. But with the end of the marriage and my lifelong dream of giving my children “a magical childhood” dashed to pieces, I couldn’t shake a deep sense of failure and grief - and Christmas only heightened those emotions. I kept comparing the fullness of Christmases-gone-by with the empty hollowness I was feeling that first one on our own.

I didn’t know how on earth I would pull off Christmas for my kids - my heart was just not in it. Where my heart should have been, there was just a sick lump of dread, and at times it hurt to breathe.

Santa Photo with family 2009

But I had three kids counting on me to pull Christmas out of a hat in spite of myself, so I started going through the motions, hoping that some Christmas feeling would kick in at some point…
Nothing worked. Not the piney scent of a real tree, not getting together with friends and constructing gingerbread houses, not even watching favourite Christmas movies.

But in the end, I managed to survive that first bleak Christmas and even – to my great surprise –  enjoy it a bit. It wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t terrible. There were some moments of love and joy that took me by surprise and helped me get through. A couple of things helped....

Christmas Tree decorating with Grandad 2020

1.      Kind, thoughtful, generous people

In Christmases past, our family had always made it a tradition to give to others in need but now I found myself on the receiving end of Christmas charity to help get us through the season. It was humbling and overwhelming – but in a surprisingly good way.

Words cannot describe what the thoughtfulness and generosity of others meant to me that Christmas. The feeling that came with being thought of, cared for and remembered? Priceless. How can I convey the lift to my spirits when a lady from a support agency turned up with a Christmas ham? The rush of gratitude when a church group came by with gift boxes for each of us? The wave of feeling when a kind friend popped by with a wrapped gift “for mum – because mum needs something to open on Christmas too”?

Acts of kindness big and small got me through that first Christmas. Never underestimate how powerful your acts of kindness and generosity can be at this time of the year. It means so much to be remembered.

Christmas Tree decorating 2020

2.           Opening the door to others

In the midst of my struggle that first solo Christmas, one of my kids asked if a friend could come and share our Christmas. I said yes, and what do you know? Opening my door to someone who would have otherwise been on their own for Christmas helped shift my perspective. It took my focus off my sadness, and I discovered all over again that when you give out to others so much more comes back to you. Never underestimate how powerful hospitality is. It really is true that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.

Christmas Eve 2020

3.      Being honest and asking for help

That first solo Christmas I couldn’t fool my older kids about how much I was struggling. They saw through my efforts to white-knuckle it through the season and sensed my lack of enthusiasm. I had no choice but to come clean and ask them for help to make Christmas special – particularly for the youngest, who was only 8 years old and thankfully oblivious to the struggle I was having.

That Christmas Eve I asked for my big kids’ help and they blew me away with how they stepped up. My daughter set a Christmas Breakfast table and added more decorations around the house so that when her little brother woke up in the morning it would seem like the elves had been.

Christmas Eve hot chocolate 2020

My eldest volunteered to help bring out the wrapped gifts and fill the stockings – a job usually done by both parents. It was incredibly special working with my son to put the prezzies under the tree (something I had dreaded as a lonely task) and he seemed to grow a couple of inches as he filled the role of “man of the house”.

Watching my big kids help make magic happen for their little brother filled my heart and made it sing. Never underestimate what you have built into your children over the years. Children can surprise you with their awesomeness when you need it most.

Christmas Morning 2020

In Brief: Tips for Christmas Survival after Loss

If you’ve survived loss and grief this year and Christmas feels too hard, it’s easy to want to hibernate and just wait for the silly season to pass by - but that’s hard to do when you have kids counting on you, because very few kids are willing to let Christmas slide. This requires us, the big people, to put on a brave face for the sake of our kids. You can do this. You really can. Here are a few things I learned to do that might help a little:

·        Be kind to yourself - recognise that this is a really hard time of the year and be kind to yourself as much as you can. It’s understandable that you’re not feeling the Christmas spirit when you’re walking through the world with a hole ripped in your chest.

·        Adjust your expectations – don’t put pressure on yourself to deliver the Best Christmas Ever. Be realistic - for a couple of years you might need to do Christmas Lite. It might suck a little bit compared to Christmases gone by, but there will be some beautiful moments that will get you through.

·        Adjust your kids’ expectations – kids are smart and resilient, they can handle a bit of honesty. If they are school age (or even very mature kindy-age) make some hot chocolate, sit down together and have a Christmas powwow. Acknowledge that Christmas will be different this year and brainstorm together how you can still make it special.

·        Redesign your Christmas season – ask your kids what traditions/activities make it feel like Christmas for them (what can they not do without?) and just do those things. Drop everything else from the menu. Ditch activities/traditions that trigger too many comparisons or raw memories. Some traditions might be just too painful to continue after loss, so see if you can replace them with alternatives that aren’t triggering. Get your kids involved in this – kids often have great ideas.

·        Stay Connected – it can be tempting to hide away and cut yourself off from friends and family, but what you actually need is good company. Push yourself to connect with safe friends at this time of the year; let people in.

·        Accept help – don’t be too proud to accept help when it is offered. It may be difficult (and humbling) to accept help but remember that “it is more blessed to give than receive” so let those offering help be blessed by allowing them to give to you. The time will come when you’re back on your feet again and you can pay it forward.

P.S. I told my daughter I was writing this post, and she said, "Do it, Mum. Tell them it gets better."  


IMAGES: These photos are from Christmas 2020, which my youngest called the Best Christmas Ever. Pictures include: Tree Decorating with Nan and Grandad and Santa-Clyde, Christmas Eve watching The Polar Express and drinking hot chocolate, Christmas morning prezzy pile and a few throwbacks to the younger years for contrast. We all still love Christmas (it doesn't hurt anymore). 

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