Last year, and perhaps unusually for a recently bereaved parent, I grasped at Christmas, seeing it as a much-needed escape from the unbearable pain I was feeling. The human brain is programmed for survival, and always a big fan of the festive season, I think my mind saw an opportunity to breathe out, if only for a day. I remember trying to explain to other bereaved parents, confused by my apparent willingness to celebrate, that I just wanted to pour myself a large glass of Bailey’s and enjoy just one day, perhaps just one hour or even just one minute of respite from the maelstrom of pain into which I had been thrown….
However another year down the line, I didn’t welcome the month of December, quite so wholeheartedly and this troubled me. I realised that last year I must have been in shock; the stark reality of the permanence of Phoebe’s death hadn’t fully set in. Last December as I decorated a small tree in her honour I know I felt anguish, I wrote about it here on my blog, but I also wrote about how I enjoyed doing it, about how I made gingerbread men and tied them on the tree with ribbon and let myself enjoy them for breakfast…
I think also that there was an element of denial; that I was hanging on desperately to Christmas past, unable to let go and acknowledge that our beautiful girl was gone forever… But this year reality hit home hard and as December arrived I looked towards the month with trepidation… I had to force myself to decorate this years small tree; I did it as quickly as possible to minimise the pain, now felt so much more acutely….
Why force myself to do a tree if it caused me so much pain, perhaps you are asking yourself…? Why not be kinder to myself? Why not take heed of all messages that dominate many grief forums and sites at this time of year and cut myself some slack on the basis that it is ok not to be ok, that it was ok not to do a tree if I didn’t want to, that it was ok to do nothing Christmassy at all if that was going to help me and give me comfort.
But that was just it, while this works for many and I cannot deny there was a definite temptation to close my eyes and hope to wake up, perhaps on March 1st when the bulbs would be beginning to flower, I knew that trying to ignore the season still wasn’t the right approach for me…. It would not bring me comfort… I describe myself in the bio for my Instagram diary as “trying to find hope and even joy after losing our girl”….. For me joy and hope are what Christmas is all about and although the time of year made me even more aware of my pain and deep, deep sadness, I still wanted to find a way to let some festive spirit into my life. I feared that rejecting Christmas would just lead me down a path of bitterness and anger where any form of healing, hope or joy would be impossible and so, I decided to square up to the pain, to push through it and to try. Trying is incredibly important to me. It defines how I approach life and the message, as I may have explained in an earlier blog post, had definitely been picked up by Phoebe. When explaining to me why she liked the song “Try Everything” from the film ‘Zootropolis’ she told me, “Because you’ve got to try haven’t you mummy, otherwise you’ll never know”. I carry those words with me everyday, in my heart and now inscribed on a silver bangle. They help me to push through the darkest of days and so feeling the darkness creeping in with the arrival of December, I drew on Phoebe’s words again and I tried… I put up the tree, in her honour, the little girl who tried, and in the hope that in doing so that I would set myself on a more hopeful path. I might have to fake it initially and come up with strategies to cope, but I hoped that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other, kept trying to find ways in which I could participate, that it would become easier, that I would find a new way to celebrate and derive some enjoyment from this special time of year.
During the last week of November, I came up with an idea. I had read, maybe in some guide to coping with the “holidays” that doing something good, perhaps something charitable in memory of your lost loved one, could be therapeutic. I have certainly given more to charity since losing Phoebe than I have ever done before in my life. I am more aware of the pain in the world as a result of my own and donating has helped me feel better, if only just a little bit… I’ve had an idea”, I said to Ralph; “I’m going to do a Charity Advent Calendar; 25 days of Christmas, 25 charities, £2 a day, I’ll share a different charity each day on Instagram and encourage others to give too, I think it will give me a positive focus and help me cope with December”….
And did it? well to an extent… I was lifted by the response from some of the charities I donated to; I received some really lovely messages of thanks and condolence. Choosing which charity to feature every day did give me a focus, but it didn’t help as much as I hoped it would and as the month unfolded, I continued to struggle.
With Phoebe’s birthday on 17th, December is unsurprisingly a month rich with memories which kept popping up on Facebook on an almost daily basis. Giving to a different charity each day was a good thing to do, but the emotional payoff just wasn’t enough to counteract just how overwhelmed I was feeling and the tears kept rising to the surface. I stumbled out of work one evening, and once secure in my car the floodgates opened and I howled… More tears flowed when I attended the Compassionate Friends annual candle lighting service in Bolton. I had originally said I was open to reading something but such was the intensity of the emotion that I felt during the service that day, it simply wouldn’t have been possible. I opened my mouth to try to sing but nothing would come out, reading a poem, even just a few lines would have been impossible…
As we approached the middle of the month, my resolve wobbled and I began to wonder if I was asking too much of myself, perhaps I would simply have to surrender and accept that Christmas might just be beyond me this year…. But, me being stubbornly me, I didn’t want to give up.. I had to keep trying..
I bought a Christmas jumper, one that I knew Phoebe would have loved, adorned with pom-pom baubles and sequins and I wore it along with the red lipstick she also coveted, to try to get into the spirit of things for an early Christmas dinner with friends. It was a warm and nurturing afternoon which provided a much-needed pit stop of calm during this emotional rollercoaster of a month. Big parties remain too much for me, this was painfully obvious when I hid in a corner for much of the large Strictly Come Dancing themed charity event we attended, but I can break bread with and enjoy the company of good friends and that afternoon it did deliver a little joy as well as candles and fluffy socks…
I wore my jumper again as I headed over to Dublin for my final trip for the year. I didn’t feel in the least bit festive that morning, in fact I felt down right maudelin crossed with a hint of irritation, but I decided to keep trying to get into the spirit in honour of it being the day assigned to the exchange of our Secret Santa gifts and I was glad I tried because my efforts were rewarded. Secret Santa exchanges can be somewhat trivial, an exchange of pointless rubbish, but not this time, this time I was presented with a wonderfully thoughtful gift; a “One Day at a Time” healing diary…. And the thoughtful gifts kept coming that week; a magical mug which in contact with boiling liquid reveals a pink unicorn from behind a cloud and an indoor festive fairy garden left on my desk for my return to the Manchester office..
Such kindness and care had gone into the choice of these gifts, I was very touched and began to feel just a little Christmassy. I remembered how last year I explained in protest to Ralph, who just wanted to ignore the season completely, that for me, Christmas is more than frivolous joviality or just for kids, that for me it has a deeper meaning and is about goodwill to others, spending time with those you love and showing them how much you care about them. Well by the looks of things, even at work, there were clearly people who cared about me and that, for me, was something to be very grateful for. It cut warmly through the pain I was feeling and began to restore a more hopeful perspective on Christmas which continued to build as the month progressed further… First with Christmas cards, more and more mentioned Phoebe in response to a plea I posted on social media and then with more cards, messages, flowers, gifts and pink balloons on what would have been Phoebe’s 6th birthday…..
On that morning of the 17th December, I felt low and lethargic. Despite the considerable kindness shown to both myself and Ralph, I still struggled to stir myself and get up until, I saw it, a picture of Phoebe’s Roundabout on the Friends of Moor Nook Park’s Facebook page. They had decorated the roundabout with pink balloons for Phoebe….! I leapt out of bed to show Ralph and after pulling on some clothes we took the large foil 6 balloon I had bought the day previously round to the park to add to those already there. A sign attached to the fence wished her a Happy Birthday and asked visitors to the play ground not to remove the balloons…. Such a beautiful gesture. Ralph wasn’t convinced when I said I felt “lucky” as we walked back home… I can understand his resistance to this choice of words. However as so many bereaved parents feel isolated and misunderstood especially at this time of year, I felt grateful for and appreciative of the ongoing kindness shown to us; it helped me to raise my head that day and to begin to look forward to Christmas..
For the big day, we had been invited to Christmas lunch at our friend Jo’s parents. I knew it would be welcoming, peaceful and all importantly without any pressure. If I relaxed into it and focussed on being grateful for being blessed with what I feel is the most precious of gifts at Christmas, the company of those who really care, then maybe, just maybe I’d be able to experience a little Christmas cheer..
And I did, I managed to have a nice, peaceful and warm day…
Of course it was not without pain. The bareness of carpet under the tree, devoid of the gifts which would have been there had we been getting up with Phoebe to see what Father Christmas had delivered, cut deeply… However, I pushed those images from my mind with all my might. I pulled on my Christmas Mr Men leggings and made the most of the sunny morning and cleared my head with a run before donning my Christmas jumper once more, this time partnered with a red sequinned skirt which I know Phoebe would have loved. I then walked round the corner, bag of carefully chosen presents in hand, for lunch. Over the course of the day, when sharing gifts, when eating my turkey and when raising my glass, I overall managed to stay in the present and kept focussed on the value of what I had rather than getting dragged down by what I will never have again.
I’m aware that I might have made this sound easier than it was. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of mental effort to achieve a “Happy” Christmas and of that I am proud, but it wasn’t really all down to me, as hinted at above, I found the strength to embrace Christmas not just because of my determination or thanks to things like my Advent Calendar, but because of the support of those around me… They made all the difference…
I had a melt down at a party on the 23rd. It was just a small party, I knew almost everyone there well and there was cross over with those with whom we would eat Christmas lunch, but on that occasion, it was too much for me. However, as I retreated home that night, I did so in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone. I had absolute faith that I’d get through Christmas because I had hands to hold….
This is the moral of Dr Seuss, “The Grinch who Stole Christmas”. Phoebe and I had enjoyed both the original story and the film together which I had been reminded of earlier that day as Facebook offered me a picture of Phoebe modelling her Grinch dress made for her by my friend Jen. I shared it and I wrote about how I didn’t want to emulate The Grinch; I didn’t want my heart to shrink and shrivel, I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I wanted to let Christmas in, because just as this story concludes, there is more to Christmas than the over the top event it can so easily become…
With the Grinch having stolen everything appertaining to Christmas, the Whos of Whoville rediscover what Christmas is about… Now I know there are those who would prefer that I remembered the Christian meaning of Christmas, but I’m not a believer and moreover I feel that Dr Seuss message is a worthy one and it certainly helped me to refocus and reframe and feel the peace, joy and hope I so coveted on Christmas Day.
In the film version, which I put on while I finished my wrapping on Christmas Eve, Lou Lou Who exclaims:
“I’m glad he took our presents. You can’t hurt Christmas, Mr. Mayor, because it isn’t about the… the gifts or the contest or the fancy lights. That’s what Cindy’s been trying to tell everyone… and me. I don’t need anything more for Christmas than this right here: my family.”
Now, here I admit, here I stumbled for a moment, my family has been ripped apart, not only have we lost our daughter but the situation with my parents remains unresolvable. But all of the events I’ve described in this blog are proof that blood isn’t necessarily thicker than water; I have amazing colleagues, neighbours and friends that have become my family so I wasn’t about to get hung up on the exact definition of the word..
The Whos join hands and sing “Welcome Christmas…… Christmas Day is in our grasp as long as we have hands to clasp” and I did. I knew beyond all doubt that I had hands, I have hands, lots of hands not just to clasp but to catch me whenever the going gets tough, and that, in my book was enough reason to celebrate Christmas. So I did…. Quietly, not riotously, but I celebrated.
How to wrap this up? Well maybe just to say to other bereaved parents that it is never my intent to come across as patronising or smug. I don’t want to shove Christmas or what you might interpret as nauseating words down your throats if taking a different approach is what works for you. We all just have to do what is right for us at this most difficult time of year. I am also very aware that not everyone has the support or the understanding that I have been lucky enough to have and I do not underestimate the value of this. Although I described myself recently as an eternal Weeble, I freely admit that it might not be so easy to keep getting back up if I didn’t have such a fantastic support network. Grief is isolating and loneliness, debilitating, so as we now square up to the arrival of another New Year in the shape of 2018, it is my greatest wish that all of us treading this path forge connections which help us, nurture us, give us the strength to keep going and which might perhaps give us fresh purpose in our lives maybe even something to celebrate again one day.
Sending you all as much hope, love, peace and strength as I can spare this New Year’s Eve.