Your first Christmas without your Mum or Dad.
So here we are smack-bang in the middle of the Christmas season. It means something different to everyone. To me this year it’s all about catching up with friends, trying not to slip over in the snow, and more mulled wine than I care to admit to.
But while writing this blog it makes me reflect back on the first Christmas without Dad. It was a particularly difficult one as this was the year that we had lost a number of family members in the preceding five months including my nana, who was very much the centre of Mum’s side of the family. The family was numb, jaded, and in pain. We were sick of what had been happening for us and felt that with so many people missing from our lives how on earth could we be expected to celebrate anything at all. I remember the day being a chore and something we felt we just had to get through.
When you’ve lost a parent there are lots of occasions and ‘firsts’ that can get very difficult for you – birthdays, anniversaries, and of course Christmas.
There is so much that goes on around Christmas in general. People are busy, and tired, and excited, and stressed. There are presents to buy, parties to go to, work to get done before the holidays, fights to have with the family over who is cooking what – all the usual fun. But if this is your first Christmas after losing your mum or your dad then a lot of that stuff goes out the window as what this particular day means to you and your expectations of it can change completely.
I’ve learnt so much over the years about what goes on for us when we are grieving around the holiday season and how to change the way you feel about it and how the day will go. So this week – before Christmas day – I am going to break this down into three blogs not just to help you get through Christmas, but to help you feel differently about it. This will be particularly relevant if this is your first Christmas without them but also if it isn’t the first but you still struggle with this time of year and not having your mum or dad around for it.
So here is what I think is the very first thing to do to make your Christmas day easier. This may seem so simple to you (or it may seem preposterous) but the biggest issue is that we don’t do it. It is to give yourself permission to be ok on the day. Tell yourself that while it’s ok to feel upset on Christmas day, it’s also ok to have fun, to laugh and to enjoy the company of the family or friends you are with.
Why is Christmas Day so hard?
The thing is that Christmas day is a day we expect to be all happy and joyful and lovely. It’s a day we associate with good memories and magic and time with the people we love. But grief, as most of our society understands it, has a very different set of associations tied to it. If we are grieving for our mum or dad we expect the day to be upsetting, empty, different and horrible and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I remember before that first Christmas thinking about and talking about how the day was going to be crap and awful and how we just all really wanted to get it over and done with. And lo and behold that’s exactly the day I had.
What’s wrong with that? Well if you decide ahead of time that you will have a really rubbish Christmas and be upset all day then you will do one of two things. You’ll either do exactly that and have a rotten day OR you won’t manage to feel bad all day, you might even enjoy yourself…and will feel tremendously guilty about it afterwards.
Either way you’ll be missing an opportunity to enjoy the day with the people who are still present in your life and you’ll be making it far harder and more painful for yourself than it needs to be.
Why do we feel we must be miserable on this day?
A huge part of the answer to this is that we think that is what we are supposed to be doing. Now I’m not taking away from or downplaying what life can feel like after the loss of a parent. Though I feel totally different about it now I remember very clearly the pain, loss, confusion, numbness, and all the other emotions that overwhelmed me after my dad died. But I also know, as someone who has given it a good shot in the past, that it is impossible to stay miserable all the time. Just like it’s impossible to stay happy all the time. And it takes a concerted effort to attempt to do either. Have you ever tried meditation? It is incredibly difficult to keep your mind fixed on one idea or thought or try to keep the thoughts out for even a short period, let alone an extended one. For most who aren’t used to meditation you won’t even make 20 seconds without your mind wandering off somewhere. So it would actually take incredible effort to keep your mind focused on what you see is missing for the entire day. Your mind doesn’t work like that.
Kids are a great example of this. Small children haven’t yet learnt what they are supposed to be feeling, and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to grieving. So they might be sad and cry and get very upset but they also won’t forget to run around, play and laugh. They don’t yet have the belief that they are not supposed to be doing this.
So why do we try? Because we think that we should be unhappy. That it would be disrespectful not to be. We are frightened about what it means if we aren’t. If we love our parent (and of course we love them) then we will be in tremendous pain. End of story. Right?
And also because we are told that’s how we will feel. Professionals you consult with may warn you how hard the day will be. Friends who have lost a parent and are still in grief will sympathise and say how difficult Christmas will be and how bad they feel for you.
The rule pretty much is that if you believe that the day will be awful and that this is the way it should be then you will be right. Don’t underestimate how much your expectations set the stage for how the day will go.
What’s wrong with feeling miserable the whole day?
When I look back I think it would have broken both my dad’s and my nana’s hearts to see their family all together on Christmas day but not enjoying each other’s company. I don’t think we even took any photos. Not being grateful for what we had and who we had in our lives, but instead sitting around, wishing the day away, and drinking far too much in a ‘need to get drunk to get through this’ rather than a celebratory manner. We weren’t able to think about or talk about Dad or Nana with a smile on our faces – being so focused on their deaths, on the space where we felt they should have been. There was so much beauty around us and so much to be thankful for – but we couldn’t see it. And we didn’t even want to look.
We might imagine that being unhappy is the expected or respectful thing to do but this is not what the people who love us want for us, particularly not our parents who have brought us into this world.
So what to do?
I am not telling you to try to be happy and positive for the entirety of Christmas day. I am not telling you to block out all the tears or the thoughts of your parent and try to be non-stop jolly and funny. That would be no more useful (or achievable) for you than telling you to be unhappy the entire day.
What I am saying is for you simply to tell yourself that it’s ok to be ok on the day.
Maybe you’ll feel sad. Ok.
Maybe you’ll really miss your parent. Ok.
Maybe you’ll cry. Ok.
Maybe you’ll want to go and sit and have a break by yourself. Ok.
But you didn’t need me to tell you that bit.
Maybe you’ll enjoy yourself. Ok.
Maybe you’ll laugh. Ok.
Maybe you’ll have fun taking stupid Christmas photos. Ok.
Maybe you’ll have a total blast playing Xbox with whatever kids are at your Christmas…even though they’ll kick your ass. Ok.
Maybe you’ll actually feel fine. Ok.
This day is like any other. Just like today, yesterday, and tomorrow you’ll have a range of emotions throughout the day. You aren’t supposed to just feel one way or the other. If you laugh it doesn’t mean you don’t miss them. If you enjoy yourself it doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
Don’t set your expectations that the day will be awful. Don’t plan that. Go in knowing that however you feel is ok. It’s ok to feel sad, happy or just plain fine. And it’s ok for your Christmas day not to be the worst one ever. As I said earlier, this might seem so simple to you but just doing this one thing for yourself will make a world of difference to how you will experience your Christmas day this year. It doesn’t have to be your new least favourite holiday of the year – there is so much more you can do with it.
In my next two blogs I’ll go into what you can do to make the day feel different for you and help to make the most of it…so stay tuned. And now that you get the ‘ok’ thing I promise not to write ‘ok’ so many times in one blog again. 🙂