So I’m having a bit of a slog of a week, but cannot face the thought of marking another essay tonight. So instead, I thought I’d try and write as it’s often a way to be cathartic about things. I can’t really talk about everything that I’d like to, as to be honest, I don’t really understand where I’m at with a lot of it. But one of the things that I think I can put into words is something that always crops up at this time of year. How to deal with grief at Christmas.
It’s been nearly 6 years since my mum passed away – as a lot of you know. I’ve said it before, and I will almost certainly say it again: I miss her. Every single day I think about her and every single day I feel the acute pang of missing this person who was so central to my life. Mum and I were best friends. We went on girls’ holidays (to the coast a couple of times, to Cyprus and Egypt, to Paris). She came to visit me multiple times when I was at university – staying with me in halls and sleeping in my grubby little flat in second year. We had film nights every Friday, and there was very little I didn’t share with her.
There are three days every year that I avoid people because I’m not a hugely pleasant person to be around – the anniversary of the day we lost her (3rd February), Mother’s day (last Sunday in March) and her birthday (25th September). But the holiday season is one of those times where I seem to feel it constantly, but don’t usually talk about. It could also be because my own birthday is in December, so it’s often a bit of a double-whammy.
Mum made Christmas. She was the glue of the family. She chose the Christmas decoration theme (so to speak) for the year, she bought every single one of the Christmas presents apart from the ones my brother and I bought for the family, and the ones my dad bought for her. She did the full Christmas food-shop (and my goodness me did we SO not go hungry!). She made the Christmas cake we all got drunk from. She did all of the wrapping (and got annoyed with the dog one year when he kept thinking the rustling was for him so she stuck a wee piece of sellotape just above his nose and then watched as he spent the next five minutes swimming across the hall carpet to try and get it off). She always gave people both wonderful and slightly dodgy presents, like the year my brother and I got a weird wrapping-paper bag full of individually wrapped toiletries like toothbrushes and razor blades because they’d “come in useful”. She often went a bit OTT, and yet still hated asking for things from us, so we’d keep findings gifts under the tree labelled “to Sue, from Sue”. She made Christmas, and it has never been the same since.
Trying to navigate the holiday season when it’s advertised as a festive time when families get together, and the core of your family isn’t there anymore, can feel excruciating. I can’t put into words how it feels to see others surrounded by theirs when there’s this huge gaping hole for you. Of course I’m amazingly happy that my friends are with their loved ones, and I’d never, ever want anyone to experience a year when they’re not, but I won’t lie. It’s also incredibly hard to watch.
The first year after we lost her – 2012 – my brother and sister-in-law spent Christmas with me and dad. We tried, but it wasn’t the same – though it was the best we could have done with the day. The second year, I had just been admitted to the unit and the last thing I wanted was a day when people ate and drank all day and gave zero shits. I, coincidentally, gave many shits – topped off by the fake Christmas dinner we had on the unit a couple of days before Christmas day where I absolutely lost it because I went for “seconds” (a piece of broccoli and two sprouts), had a meltdown and had to be calmed down by about four staff members. That year, my aunt and uncle came over, and my brother and sister-in-law spent Christmas with her family abroad. The following year, my dad and I spent Christmas again with my brother and sister-in-law, and the year after that, they were in Germany, my dad was in Lanzarote and I was in Washington (not State or DC). Last year, dad and I went up to Scotland to spend the day again with my brother and sister-in-law. It’s all felt a bit disjointed because before 2012, every Christmas was us, at home, with mum. Every one since – despite everyone trying their upmost to make it a special day – has been a day navigating around the missing presence of this central person.
It’s incredibly difficult, but the only thing you can do is to try and make the most out of the day with what you have, and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do. We’ve tried to plug the hole and celebrate it as she would have wanted. We’ve always raised a wee toast to her and gone on smiling, but for me the day has always felt incredibly sad because the pang of wanting to see her again is palpable.
In a way, I’ve always thought I’d deserved this. I wasn’t there for my mum when she needed me, and I deserve to feel like shit for that. No daughter should ever have decided it would be a good idea to go to Edinburgh for the night while their mother was in a hospice, but I stupidly did and I wasn’t there for her. She didn’t get to hear me tell her it was okay and that she didn’t need to be scared and that we’d always love her, so maybe it’s the universe having a good sense of karma that I always feel blue this time of year. Maybe it’s my just reward. I also know fine well that if she saw this last paragraph, she’d have a bloody field day and I would be well and truly Told. But I have never been able to shake this unbearable guilt and I honestly don’t believe I ever should be. It is all on me that I wasn’t there and I should feel guilty for it – nothing anyone says will ever change my mind on this.
Navigating this time of year when there’s a cornerstone of your family missing (whether they’re blood-related or not) is exceptionally hard. By the end of next week, I’m hoping to be able to let go of a lot of this guilt, live in the moment and have the holiday season she’d want me to have. So for the people reading who this blog post rings true for – you’re not alone in dealing with this. Your loved one is always with you. Raise a glass in their honour and live for the day. Let yourself miss them, but try not to let it consume you. You owe it to them, and you owe it to yourself. Make the best of the season that you can and know that wherever they are, they’d want you to be happy.