Are you having a weird Christmas? We are. It’s our first without Dad, who died in January. My sister and I have had nearly 50 Christmases with him, Mum 60 and now – thanks to just one little brain bleed! – there are no more. My sister has made 700 gallons of gravy and broken the ban on Yorkshire puddings with turkey to try and compensate – and I won’t lie, it does a bit – but it’s still not quite the same.
Last Christmas was weird too because he was in hospital, but that’s is fundamentally a matter of reconstituting and relocating the celebrations (he was in a single room because he had caught Covid earlier, so we weren’t disturbing anyone) so you could distract yourself quite easily from the knowledge that he wasn’t going to be there for the next one.
This, the next one, is weirder. When I was younger and even more stupid than I am now – stupid in the ways that only time and experience can eradicate – I never understood why people made such a fuss about the milestones after people had died. Why they got particularly upset on the late loved one’s birthday, or an anniversary – or Christmas. It was just another day without them, after all. God, we really are stupid when we’re young, are we not?
Nowadays, of course, I’m a little better informed. Not just because of Dad, I should say. Much as I would selfishly like to have remained in my state of blissful ignorance by not losing anyone I loved before him, it would have been pushing my luck for it to have lasted intact for almost half a century. (Still, if you’re listening, God – everyone’s quite happy to have a crack at it, okay?). You learn with every loss that any kind of “marker” day is especially painful. It brings the absence home to those left behind, the finality of it. Because instead of an ordinary, slightly blurry day you have unwanted clarity. You can suddenly compare like with like. Last birthday, she was here. This birthday she is not. Last anniversary we went to a restaurant. This anniversary, I am not. Last Christmas, he was here. This Christmas – ah, bollocks.
There are lots of ways for Christmas to be weird, of course, and I’m very aware that ours is hardly going to be the worst. We miss our person terribly but he was a good age and we know it was his time. And we know we are lucky that he went as easily and peacefully as he did. And we have had nearly a year to get used to life without him. Other people will be facing Christmas with rawer wounds and deeper sufferings.
There are not just bereavements to be faced, but estrangements or caring for parents or partners with dementia, or loved ones in the grip of mental health crises. There are a lot of ways to lose people.
Christmas, once you are out of childhood (presuming you are lucky enough to have a happy one), is a pressurised occasion at the best of times. Perfect presents, perfect food, perfect family relations, perfect joy and goodwill to all mankind – I mean, it’s a tough ask. If you’re facing a weird Yuletide, it’s practically impossible.
I think the best way through it is to take what feels initially like a very unChristmassy view of things and do only what you want to do. If you want to have the same Christmas – or bigger! More distracting! – go for it. If you want to ignore the day entirely, try to make it blend in with all the other days when you only ordinarily miss them and want to punch them in the throat for going off and leaving you, do that instead. I know, I know, no man – and very much no woman – is an island and making yourself one at this time of year probably isn’t a workable option for most of us in the the real world, but you can hold it in your head as an ideal and tailor your time, your acceptance of invitations, guests, and sprout-provision to it as much as possible.
We should all be looking outwards, of course, and doing good work. Volunteering at soup kitchens and so on. And I’d like to think we will get to that, maybe next year or the year after that when things are a bit more settled, the child is a bit older and there is a bit more slack in the grief-system. Until then, I can only really recommend the gravy and Yorkshire pudding thing. And remembering that the reason you’re sad, the reason you miss your person, your people, is because you have good Christmases to remember. Because you loved them and they loved you. Glad tidings. Let them be a comfort and a joy.