Christmas after a family death
The first December after the loss of a loved one can be hard to bear. Distract yourself. Socialise only if you feel like it. And don’t be afraid to cry
Joe and Ena Foley were so full of happiness
Joe and Ena Foley on their wedding day
My dad died suddenly last February. It shook the roots of my foundation, but I coped reasonably well, able to talk to other people who had lost a parent about my new feelings of fragility and vulnerability. But nine months later I realised there were layers of grief that hadn’t yet emerged. In fact, my grief had been suspended until the dark days of November and December came upon us. Christmas has a nostalgic pull that will be hard to bear this year.
Anam Cara, the support group for bereaved parents and families, witnesses the ferocity and depth of emotions first-hand. The group tries to help bereaved families cope with the frenzy and excesses of this time of year.
Kate Burke is a volunteer with Anam Cara. Her five-year-old son Kieran died almost 11 years ago. She says the first Christmas is the hardest, especially when young siblings are excited about their Santa presents. “It was horrendously difficult, because you have this gaping hole in your life. We were determined to make a Christmas for the boys. Previously, I had loved decorating the house for Christmas, but I found it really hard to put anything up.
“Going into the shops and hearing Christmas music made me want to shoot people or sit down on the floor and cry. In fact, I remember standing in Smyths and bawling my eyes out.”
She recommends asking other people to do your grocery or present shopping, or doing it online instead. “There is no logical order to the emotions – despair, anger, pain, loneliness, panic – you will feel, and it will come in waves.”
“I spent the whole of the first Christmas Day crying. My husband, Karl, was annoyed with me, but I couldn’t stop myself. Later we realised that it was okay for both of us to grieve differently. I sat down with my sons Ian and Kevin, who were 10 and seven at the time, and said I couldn’t help crying because I missed Kieran so much. I said, ‘It won’t always be this way. We will get stronger.’
“I also felt it was important for them to be allowed to be in the moment – to be ecstatically happy when they got their Santa presents. Grief for children is different; it comes and goes. They aren’t carrying it all the time like adults. It took a huge amount of physical and emotional energy for me to just get through the day.”
Burke says that after the death of a child the most important thing for families is to be patient with each other and not expect anything from each other.
“I know a lot of people decide to go away for the first Christmas, or ignore that it is Christmas, but my feeling was that we would have to face it sooner or later. It’s really important to do what you’re comfortable about in terms of socialising. A lot of people are under huge pressure to socialise, but don’t go if you don’t feel like it. People who really matter will understand and carry you through what you are feeling.”
Mary Paula Walsh, a psychotherapist and extremely experienced grief counsellor, is the author of Living After a Death, a book that is available from Turning Point, the counselling centre she set up with her partner, Kay Conroy, in 1986.
“We used to run workshops to help people cope with Christmas after the death of a close family member, because Christmas is such a difficult time. How people cope really depends on whether they had happy or sad memories of Christmas time. If they always had a lovely Christmas they will be able to re-create a nice Christmas after a couple of years. If there was addiction in the family, and Christmas was a nightmare, then it will be harder,” says Walsh.
“If the relationship with the person was good it is easier to grieve and get over it. If the relationship was bad there will be regrets and losses – for example, the loss of parenting from a father or mother who had an addiction.”
Walsh says that she is a great believer in a good cry to help deal with grief. “Crying is okay at any time. It’s not a sign of not coping or falling apart.”
Walsh also says that distraction is another good way of coping. The poet TS Eliot “says that mankind can only bear so much reality, and people need a break from their own reality. Going to Christmas Day Mass or services or concerts can give you that break.
“The hardest thing at Christmas time is to be yourself, to get in touch with your inner self and see what’s best to do. A lot of people spend some of the day with family and some of it on their own, and that’s quite a good way of dealing with it. It’s important for children to see you grieving but not to see you falling apart. That’s very insecure for children,” says Walsh.
“I think if people can face their loss, their strengths will come to the fore. They will realise how they got through other things as well and see that if they survived that, they can survive this loss as well.”
Fond memories: keeping the spirit alive My mother and father loved Christmas: the pudding, the lights, the decorations, the crib, midnight Mass, the presents, the lists and the excitement leading up to it, when all activity centred around the kitchen and the fire in the sitting room.
I never missed spending a Christmas at home with them, and this will be my first Christmas without either of them. I approach it gingerly and with great dread.
My mother and father were both so full of fun and happiness that it’s difficult to imagine this time of year without them.
My father died last July, three years to the month after my mother passed away. One neighbour said we didn’t allow ourselves to mourn the death of our mother, in 2011, because we still had to care for our father. She said his loss would pile in on top of us in the months ahead. In many ways she was right. The death of my father seems to have compounded the loss of my mother.
Some days the grief from their loss has come like a tsunami, unexpected and overwhelming, and the void left by the two of them is often bleak and life-quenching. As we get closer to Christmas I find there’s a flatness to all the usual seasonal happenings.
It is only now they are gone that I see the totality of who and how they were. I miss them, their presence in spirit and in body. I miss their individual and combined strength, their humour and wit, their imagination and courage, their sustaining love.
It is only now that I fully appreciate all those inconsequential conversations we had, all those moments of being together we had and the uncomplicated spiritual connection we had.
Over the years, with the bereavements of much-loved uncles and aunts, our family has shrivelled considerably. This year we’ll gather as usual on Christmas Day in our family home, where I live now.
We’ll light a huge fire, gaze into the flames and hope the day won’t be too lonely or too difficult to bear without loved ones, in particular without the smile and warm presence of my father, who was with us last year.