All is Calm, all is Bright? Dealing with grief at Christmas

It’s the first weekend in December. Our Christmas decs are up (not the tree yet, it would be like a wee shrivelled branch by the time Santa got here) and SONOS is officially set to Chrimbo-tastic. The boys were so ridiculously excited to open their advent calenders the past two mornings that both of them were up pre-6am. I’m hoping that particular novelty wears off…

Photo by  Mike Labrum  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

When I stop, look around, and breathe in the scent of Holiday Peace from my diffuser, I can just feel the joy. So why then, is there a part of my heart that hurts? Part of my tummy that just won’t stop churning? Tears that feel like they’re ready to spring out at any time (most likely whilst I am watching a movie on Christmas24 (whaaaaaat???! Don’t be a judger). Welcome to Grief at Christmas.

Ah hello Grief, my old pal. You’ve never left my side, even after 18 long years. What a loyal buddy you are. I’ve not always been the best friend to you – trying to run from you, hide from you, ignore you and act as if you just don’t matter. There was that time when we had a particularly nasty falling out and you came back to bite me so hard that it felt like my whole world was crumbling. Isn’t it strange that now I can honestly say a very heartfelt THANK YOU for doing that.

I remember someone saying to me that grief comes in waves. One day (week, or month even) you are bumbling along just fine and then it engulfs you like a freaking tsunami. You’re standing in John Lewis crying into your coffee with your cheese scone stuck in your throat desperately searching for the nearest, least conspicuous exit.

This has been a long old journey for me with this one, first the loss of my dad made for a particularly memorable (for the sheer sadness of it all)  Chrimbo in 2000. We’d moved out of the family home (ill-advice from our then lawyer that we had to sell everything, straight away so that not only was our family ripped apart but the entire backdrop to our lives changed), and I don’t even think there was a Christmas tree. My mum, deep in grief, still did stockings for us (bear in mind I was the youngest in the family at 19 – we were probably beyond stockings… but, really, are you ever too old for a stocking?). Christmases took on a different hue after that but somehow, they were always still special. Often there were various waifs and strays that Mum had welcomed into our family. Sometimes there was dinner out. Always we were together, holding on to the strength that made our family what it is. Always there was laughter and a sprinkling of magic. And always we missed the guy who made the best champagne cocktails in the world, who told the worst Christmas jokes and who is waaaaaay better than Santa.

In the ten years since we lost my mum, so much has happened. I have married, we bought our family home, had my children, got my cat (who is way up there with my kids by the way) and I have begun to create my own vision of how Christmas should be. Christmases looked different, but I had a whole extended family in the McKeans who welcomed me with open arms and the hours we spent round their family table were always filled with so much warmth, soooo much food, normally a lot of port and an obligatory go on my father-in-law’s saxophone. Then over the years we lost both of Michael’s parents too.

So much loss, too early in our lives. And whilst I feel the grief all the time, it’s at these times of years that it feels most poignant. The moments when we should be gathering those we love close to us.

And so, as we bring out the garlands and the fairy lights, I feel a sense of something missing. Part of me thinks, ‘it’s been years! How can I possibly still feel like this?’ And another part of me, the one that has gently whispered to me over the years, wraps me up in its arms and says, ‘it is important to feel this, turn towards these feelings, honour them, for what they are is a legacy of how special these relationships are. They have moulded you. Your life as it is now is in part due to all that has come before. And remembering is key.’

 

Something I have noticed that has changed over the years, is that I can remember. For many years I shut down, turned away from many of my childhood memories, couldn’t look at photos of mum and dad because it was all just too painful. And now it’s with such joy that I look back on those memories. I now tell my own kids tales of when I was wee and what their grandparents were like. It feels so vitally important to me to let them know that they do have grandparents, just not in the physical sense where we pop round for tea or go for sleepovers.

And this Christmas, it is also becoming clearer to me that the baton has officially been passed on. I am a grown up (wtf? When did that happen?). I have my own family. It is now up to us to create those special moments and weave magic into our lives. And you know what? I think I might finally be up for the challenge.

Now, this is the story of grief many years on. And it is simply my story. One thing that I have learnt is that, whilst grief follows a similar pattern (known as the five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – still totally working on that last one…) how we process it is unique to us. But for those of you who are grieving your lost ones during this festive season – whether it be recent or many, many years ago, I just want to say this. I am sending my deepest love to you. On a level I get it, and I wish you weren’t going through this pain. Be so gentle with yourself and look after your needs as best you can. With each passing year you gain more coping strategies. In the meantime, pick a few things that are good for your heart and keep doing them, even when you don’t really feel like it. It is vitally important to take care of you.

Here are a few of the things that I find help me when grief hits:

A weepy film: Sometimes when I feel like the tears are bubbling underneath I will stick on a sad movie and let it rip! They need to come out as that energy is so much worse when bottled up and takes on a toxicity in the body that you don’t want seeping through your cells so let it go (sorry, had to obviously get a Frozen reference in there…). Some of my top go-tos are Beaches, Little Women, anything by Nicholas Sparks (yes, the cheesier the better in my world). And one day I hope to be able to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again – weirdly it was one of Dad’s faves at Christmas but given the content I’m just not sure I can handle it quite yet.

My oils: One of the biggest things that I now turn to are my doTERRA oils. I have found these revolutionary in helping me deal with many aspects of my wellbeing, not least the grief that accompanies me. Daily I use Balance, the grounding blend, which keeps me running on an even keel. When I need some extra support I pop use the Rose Touch over my heart and inhale Console, the comforting blend. Baths with geranium and lavender  and some Epsom salts soothe my body and mind from any tension that has been building up when I have been trying too hard to ‘just carry on’, and diffusing lemon and frankincense clears the air, calms everyone in the house and uplifts the mood. When I am feeling like I need seriously uplifted, grapefruit, wild orange or Elevation are my friends. If you’d like to chat about doTERRA oils please just give me a shout and we can set up a call.

Deep self-care: this is the transformational stuff, not just the ‘book in for a massage or have a bath’ things (although I encourage you to do that too). It helps to get really clear on what helps you, and also to explore practices that bring calm and soothe our nervous system. For me that is meditation, listening to inspirational podcasts, and getting out to exercise (something I continue to work on being consistent with but it helps to look at it as something for my mental wellbeing not just physical health).

Getting mega organised: when I am feeling the waves of grief engulf me, the smallest of things can feel like the most gargantuan task. One way I deal with this is to get super organised and write everything down, scheduling my entire week and blocking out time to look after myself. Something happens when I know that I have allocated time to doing things that support me, as when I know they are in there it helps me to be able to get the other tasks done.

Saying no: Something I struggled with in my grief is that often I didn’t want to do the things that I had always done, being out in clamouring pubs felt claustrophobic, social events felt false as I plastered on my ‘I’m fine’ persona. But to say no to these things felt so, well, selfish. As I have grown older I recognise that saying no to some of the things that I know really are not going to make me feel good is saying yes to myself. Don’t be afraid to say no, especially when you know it won’t serve you right now. It may not be forever that you feel that way, but honour yourself in the here and now.

Journalling: Writing is so cathartic, and for many keeping a daily journal helps to process a lot of what is going on in the head. For me, I have a little book in which I write letters to my mum. She was always my go-to whenever anything was on my mind and I find this helps me to work through things in the way I would have done over a vat of tea in her kitchen.

Be gentle: The biggest thing I have found is that I have to be so super gentle with myself when I’m in a deep state of loss. I know by now that it will pass, it will ease and there are brighter feelings ahead. I also know that if I run from these feelings they just grow inside and get worse. So I read comforting books, take a hot water bottle to bed (or just have it on the sofa), cook comforting food, make chicken soup (because it really is good for the soul) and redirect my internal chatter to be kind, considerate and comforting.

Remembering: This was one that was so painful in the first few years, but it has become easier and it’s now something that just feels so important. Perhaps it’s because I have my boys and I feel a deep necessity to tell them how awesome their grandparents were and to keep them alive through stories. It can be lovely to create a little ritual, this may be having a photo up and lighting a candle for them, or visiting a place they loved. Whatever it is, acknowledging them feels important to me.

Creating new rituals: Now that I have a family of my own I am loving creating new rituals and traditions that fit in with our unique set-up. Some I will carry on from my own childhood and pass these down, but I am also enjoying doing our own thing too. Whilst it is important for me to look back, I am also so excited about all of our Christmases to come. Watching my boys grow, having a house filled with laughter, joy and love, and recognising that whilst there may be some folks missing at our Christmas table, we have an abundance of beautiful family and friends right here in front of us. And now, many years on, it is still the most wonderful time of the year.

 

 

For anyone that is grieving this Christmas, you may find the following links helpful:

Cruse Bereavement care – Coping at Christmas

Dying Matters – Supporting Bereaved people at Christmas

64 tips for dealing with grief over the holidays

 

For anyone that is supporting a friend or family member, I do get how hard it can be to do this. The best support I have had from friends and family is in the acknowledgement of the grief. Sometimes it can feel easier to just carry on and not bring it up for fear of upsetting the person, especially if they appear to be ‘fine’ on the outside. But I have always been grateful to those mates who have acknowledged it and just simply offered a hug. It is true that there are often no words that can help, nothing that can make sense or change the situation (obviously…) but acknowledgement of someone’s feelings is one of the greatest gifts you can give them – it lets them know that you see them, and that you care.

Sending love xxx