Why Christmas Hurts So Much
It reminds us of those we’ve lost
Christmas: it’s the ultimate fairy tale.
The jolly, bearded man pulled across the sky by reindeer, bringing gifts to excited children in snuggly pyjamas; loving, happy families gathered around tables of steaming vegetables; couples clinking glasses of fizz beneath mistletoe sprigs.
At least this is the fantasy, as seen on TV adverts.
The reality, for many of us, is different. Broken families, shrunken families, tricky relationships, shattered dreams and a sackful not of presents but of grief — grief for those we’ve lost and for the things we long for but haven’t got.
Christmas hurts so much precisely because of that gap — the chasm between the make believe and the real, between our expectations and what is, between our lives and what we imagine is going on in our neighbours’ sparkly homes.
I’ve always found Christmas an emotional time, especially since I stopped numbing my feelings with excess food and alcohol. In my younger years, I’d gain a visible amount of weight over the festive season, partly because over-indulgence was not only sanctioned but encouraged, and partly because there was more pain to numb than at other times of the year.
When I stopped over-eating, I got in touch with the loss, both the multi-layered childhood losses and the present-day losses: the partner I didn’t have, the children I hadn’t had, the confusion I felt about how my life had turned out.
This Christmas, I am thankful that I have a husband and a puppy, but I have no kids in snuggly pyjamas excitedly waiting for Santa, and I have no parents, having lost Mum around this time last year (Dad died many years before).
I’m going to write that again because it’s only just sunk in: this isn’t just my first Christmas without Mum; it’s my first Christmas without any parents.
That’s quite a milestone.
I know some of you will be grieving too, grieving your own unique losses, the memories, the absences, so I offer the following story, which I scribbled on a notepad late one night through tears, in the hope it helps you to slow down, connect with your truth and feel your grief— because we have to feel it to heal it.
My Christmas Hurt
It’s a few days into January 2021, in the midst of a bleak Covid winter, and I’m sat in my car at a motorway service station, talking to my therapist on Facetime.
So you think this is the last time you’re going to see your mum alive? You’re going up there to say goodbye?
Yes, I reply.
Ambivalence is my middle name. Uncertainty follows me around. Yet I’d never been more sure of anything.
I’d seen Mum in her care home on the weekend before Christmas, through a perspex screen in a tiny makeshift booth, its walls so flimsy they would have tumbled with a gentle push.
It reminded me of one of those passport photo booths and the face before me looked just like mine— I’m the image of my mum, I’ve always been told— only the woman opposite was some thirty years my senior and painfully, horribly thin.
The staff had done their best to pad her out, layering on woolly cardigans and jumpers, but I saw right through the chunky knits to the skeletal frame beneath.
Still, Mum was bright, her silver white hair stacked neatly on top of her head in her trademark bun, her cheeks light pink and smooth, her demeanor cheery, if rather confused. She had dementia, you see, which may have explained how amenable she was to sitting in a cold booth, being separated from her daughter by a screen and having to speak into a dodgy microphone, barred from touching or holding hands.
That was the last time I saw Mum upright. Less than a month later, she died.
Lockdown Brought Relief
In between, we had Christmas and New Year — my husband and I at home on England’s south coast, some 200 miles away from Mum in North Wales; my brother near her care home, but locked down.
I didn’t feel too bad being apart from Mum at Christmas. She’d always disliked the season intensely — I assume it brought back memories she didn’t want to recall. She’d always said she’d rather ignore Christmas and couldn’t wait for it to be over. So it was OK to leave her shut up in a home with carers she barely knew, I reasoned. She wouldn’t remember it anyway.
Yet this year, of all years, Mum had expressed interest in Christmas on my December visit, some enthusiasm even, asking where we’d all spend the big day, thinking, maybe, that she’d get to escape her prison, if just for a few hours. I wish we’d found a way to make that happen.
But we’re in lockdown. This is how it has to be, I reassured myself at the time. The truth was it was easier that way, a relief somehow. Lockdown meant I wouldn’t have to drive for six or seven hours to North Wales and do the same journey back again. Lockdown meant I could stay home and do as I pleased. Lockdown meant I wouldn’t need to see Mum, because seeing Mum was tough.
When I saw Mum, I felt compelled to try and help her, to find out what was wrong, to make her well, against all the odds. Why wasn’t she able to swallow her food? Why was she regurgitating it, spitting it back into her bowl? Why had the wrong flavour of protein shake arrived, the milk-based one she refused to drink? When would the fruit shake show up? Should I bring her home with me or put her in a flat with 24–7 care? Ultimately, how was I going to save her, to stop her from shrinking, from disappearing before my eyes?
I never did find my answers.
Flying To The Moon
So when the care home called in early January, I knew I was heading up there to say goodbye.
We had a week in the end, a week during which I spent many hours by her side, holding her hand, soothing her when the waves of pain made her groan, playing Frank Sinatra to her on my phone, singing along. I Did It My Way. Fly Me to the Moon.
Thankfully, the care home had found a way for us to visit Mum through the back door, literally. We could enter her room via the garden and keep everyone else safe — special lockdown measures reserved for the dying and their relatives.
I’d taken some work with me — I was racing to complete my entry to a novel competition by an imminent deadline — but every time I got my laptop out, Mum would groan or a nurse or doctor would arrive.
One doctor came with a handful of paperwork — a man I’d never met and who had never met Mum, waving papers at me, asking me to sign them. He talked, in the corner of Mum’s room, about end of life, special medication, morphine, things I didn’t understand, questions I had no clue how to answer. Later that evening, I Googled everything.
One word of advice: be prepared. Know your answers. It’ll all happen very fast.
I didn’t want Mum to have morphine at first, fearing it would precipitate her death, literally kill her off before her time. Then she cried out in pain, groaning and writhing, her head in my lap. This time, I couldn’t soothe her. Neither could Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Morphine, please. Now.
She died a day or two later in her sleep when nobody was there. The phone rang around 4 am. I’d checked with my brother the night before — if I get a call in the middle of the night, shall I wake you?
The carer on the other end of the phone delivered the news with kindness but no frills. She’d done this before, no doubt. For me, it was a first.
I woke my brother and we drove the short distance to the care home and sat by Mum’s bed, holding her hand, kissing her face, as I’d done with my dad many years before. I didn’t want to leave.
Selfies With The Dead
The staff packed Mum’s belongings into cardboard boxes and bags, ready for us to pick up. I’d wanted to sort through her things myself. But we were in a pandemic. They wanted to be helpful. It didn’t help me.
I asked for some time alone in her room. In silence, except for my sobs, I sat on her empty bed and unpacked some of the clothes again, taking out the ones that weren’t hers, the items that belonged to other residents and had got mixed up. These clothes felt like intruders. I wanted them gone.
I collected some other belongings that might have been left behind — her dressing gown hung on the back of the door, a picture on the wall. I wanted everything, every last piece of Mum’s life, as I had done with Dad.
I chose to see Mum again, in her coffin, in the funeral home. She looked like Mum but not like Mum, Mum from another world, alien Mum.
I have photos of that visit, pictures of Mum lying still and photos of the two of us, selfies of a sort. That must sound weird. But I wanted to hold on to her for as long as I could. I still have those photos and I have no idea what to do with them. I stumble on them when I scroll through my phone, moving past them quickly, not wanting to look. I have her clothes too, in five plastic bags in the loft. I’ll get to them eventually, when I’m ready to let go.
It doesn’t help that it’s another Covid Christmas — the talk of lockdowns brings it all back. Mum didn’t die of Covid but I would wager that Covid precipitated her death. She had stopped eating, as though she had lost interest in living. She hadn’t been out of the home for almost a year — surely this contributed to her demise? Loss of appetite is common with dementia but Mum, in her right mind, would have hated being shut indoors. When she was well, she walked outside every day.
Almost one year on, I continue to work through multiple layers of complicated grief, a grief that’s exacerbated by not having children myself, especially at this time of year. There is no frantic activity to get everything ready for the kids. More importantly, there is no circle of life. The circle breaks with me. Our cocker spaniel, no matter how human she thinks she is and how much I mother her, doesn’t quite complete the circle.
We Are Not Alone
So there is grief and there is grief and there is grief. And while it can feel like I’m the only one who feels this way, who feels this heavy sadness when I watch TV adverts, scroll through my social media feeds or remember Mum, I know I am not alone.
Christmas hurts in a multitude of ways. Our hearts ache for the absences — the people we’ve lost and the people we haven’t yet found — and for the lives we haven’t yet built or the lives that have fallen apart.
The good news?
When we feel loss this deeply, it confirms that we have loved with all our hearts and that we are awake, fully alive. The same goes for our longings — when we yearn for something or someone, it confirms that our hearts are open and that we dare to dream.
And when we can truly feel what’s going on inside, in all its messiness, we can take comfort from the fact that we are connected to our truth, rather than oblivious to our emotions because we have numbed them with crazy Christmas busyness or too much sugar or booze.
Finally, if we allow ourselves to feel and to grieve, we heal our pain and we make space for joy.
So let the feelings flow this Christmas, as freely as the wine.