Thursday, 15 December 2016

It's Beginning to Look a Little Like Christmas

I opened the box of Christmas decorations as carefully and as nervously as an archaeologist might approach a long lost haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure. This, to me, was much more precious; a collection not of gold but memories, a time capsule of the way things used to be, before. 

Louise was always gently amused at my child-like excitement around Christmas. Come December each year the cynicism and scepticism of adulthood was temporarily cast to one side as I counted down the days to the 25th. I loved every aspect of the holiday period from the most cheesy of festive pop songs to the traditional turkey - the merest suggestion of anything else for Christmas Dinner was enough to cause disquiet. I might have grumbled along with everybody else at the first signs of tinsel and bumper boxes of Quality Street in the shops as soon as the school summer holidays finished but that was only for appearances sake. I was secretly delighted at the signs of the encroaching season. I would, in fact, have been quite happy to see mince pies appearing in the shops in June.

But last year Christmas was cancelled. My first without Louise. I watched it approach with dread, unable to reconcile the jollity all around me with my own grief filled reality and petrified both of the memories that it would evoke and the inevitable comparisons between the love, light and activity of before and the sadness and emptiness of now. A time for families when your loved one is gone, laughter and celebration when you feel as though you will never be able to celebrate or laugh again, and for remembering times past when memories bring such pain. Nothing can possibly be calculated to emphasise loss more than Christmas. 

So I simply avoided it. It was surprisingly easy. No decorations went up, I worked through to Christmas Eve and, by way of distraction, took myself off on a major holiday a couple of days later. I mostly socialised only with those in a similar situation who were equally keen to blot out the festive period and TV couldn't serve as a reminder since I wasn't watching it anyway. By and large things passed me by. 

As this year has progressed, however, I've been much less sure how to deal with my second Christmas. I can't continue to avoid it indefinitely and I'm very conscious that Louise would be heartbroken at the thought that her actions have wrecked for ever something from which I drew so much pleasure. 

In any case, I am not in quite the same place that I was 12 months ago. The loneliness is, if anything, even more acute after what is now such a long period on my own, and the hope that I clung on to so tightly, that I might quickly be able to build a new equally good, stimulating and rewarding life, is harder to maintain as it becomes ever clearer with each passing day that the lonely and empty holding pattern of routine is settling into my new normal. But I've become used to Louise's absence, better at handling situations and memories which would have disabled me a year ago, much less vulnerable to surprise attacks of raw grief. Its a flat, monochrome, lifeless world but no longer, generally, a searingly painful one. It's kind of OK - as long as I can avoid comparisons with what I used to have.

It therefore feels like the right time to try to face Christmas again, to engage
once more with the holiday season. Which was why I found myself staring into the box of decorations, untouched since Louise had last packed the contents away nearly two years ago, just weeks before she died. I could tell that it was Louise who had packed it because of the efficiency with which it had been done. I would never have managed to squeeze everything in. Taking out the first baubles felt almost like a violation of a sacred space, breaking the vacuum seal on a world where Louise still lived.

Erecting the tree was an even bigger emotional challenge. Like most of the contents of our joint household, it was originally Louise's. I still vividly remember the pleasure and excitement of putting it up for her at our first Christmas together, just days after we had got engaged. It felt symbolic of the intertwining of our lives. We rarely took selfies but one of us the following year sitting in front of the same tree surrounded by presents, about to celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple, perfectly encapsulates the sense of domestic contentment and fulfilment. I was wearing a badge. Zooming into the picture I can see it says 'Loved Like Crazy'. 

I still won't be able to bring myself to observe many of the Christmas traditions we were beginning to establish together - that would be a stretch too far. There will be no special meal on Christmas Eve, no visit to midnight mass, no real Christmas tree in the conservatory. There are other things which are beyond me too. An attempt to obliterate the darkest of memories with love, placing a heart shaped decoration where I found Louise's body, failed when I quickly discovered that I couldn't bear the sight of any kind of object hanging there.

I am not sure that I will ever get used to waking up on Christmas morning, turning to an empty side of the bed and wishing a void a Merry Christmas. Nor should I. Louise's death isn't something that is meant to be easy. If I ever  lost sight of its significance I would have also lost sight of the significance of our love and our relationship. Neither would I ever want a Christmas to go by without reflection on the memories of those few we shared together, despite the shadow cast over them by the knowledge of what was to come and the pain of Louise's absence. 

inside me that little child is bursting to emerge once more, ready, at least tentatively, to try to take some pleasure in my favourite time of year. This Christmas I won't run and hide from the first sounds of carols. I won't avoid the shops, decked out in their festive finery. I won't tell everybody not to bother buying presents for me. I might even watch some TV. I've already found myself checking through the schedules.

And I will write cards to Louise's friends, some of whom I barely know, in an effort to maintain her networks as best as I can, to hold on to something of her life. Cards which, incidentally, Louise herself bought, her thrifty habit of bulk purchases still of practical help to me at this distance. There will be Christmas Dinner with my family even though, as was the case for years before I met Louise, I will again be the odd one out, the unmarried one, acutely conscious of feeling not quite a full adult and charged, by default, with looking after my Mother. And there will be the new Christmas tradition of taking flowers to the spot where Louise's ashes were scattered.

I can even silence the occasional nagging doubt that I shouldn't be allowing myself the prospect of any enjoyment, that it is disrespectful to Louise if I smile, laugh or experience contentment. I know that I have honoured her properly and continue to do so, that I am entitled to seek to live again, without guilt. I'm glad that I made the effort with the decorations. The house looks more cosy and inviting than at any time since Louise died. She would certainly approve. Somehow the lights on the tree echo the flames of hope and remembrance that have flickered from the many candles I have burnt in her memory over the last 23 months.  

The decision to open myself up to Christmas feels as though it's released something of a blockage. For the first time in many months there is a sense of achievement and progress. The wishes expressed in so many cards, exhorting me to enjoy 'the happiest Christmas ever' are a long way wide of the mark. It can hardly be that, nor even remotely close. Much of it will still be difficult to bear. There will be moments of real pain and emptiness. But I'm hopeful that this time it won't be quite the unhappiest either. For the moment that is good enough. 


  1. Kathariner.KR2@googlemail.com30 December 2016 at 16:15

    Hello Gary
    I just want to thank you for the gift of your blog. You have such a talent for expressing your experience of grief, bereavement and the huge range of emotions that accompany it and I've found it very helpful.

    My beloved husband James died in July. He was 51. He had a very rare metabolic condition and his last weeks were enormously traumatic. And although the circumstances of our losses are different, I resonate a great deal with a lot of what you say.

    At the moment I'm in the raw territory where the roller coaster turns are very rapid; it's like scrambling over razor sharp boulders. Painful, often agonising, absorbing, exhausting and yet I can see that in a way it may sort of be easier than the 'flat, monochrome ' place you describe from further along, where there's a settling into a routine that's manageable but so much less than life with the beloved person. I suppose this is for many of us a necessary phase. And you do describe small seedlings and shoots coming up. I hope they blossom and flourish for you. I have nodded minimally towards Christmas and been carried through by loving friends. I think it will be a blur in my wider memory.

    You said something in a previous post about absorbing the reality of death into daily life. I find that very helpful, and I'm doing it too; I have been for a long time really as we knew James was unlikely to live to be old. And I think it is a profound change, and though we wouldn't wish for this kind of loss, it can offer up precious meaning to everything.
    I wish you well, and thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Katharine. I am so sorry for your loss - and indeed for the trauma you went through with James in his final weeks. It is often forgotten that many people are already exhausted and emotionally drained by the time they are bereaved. If my blog has helped in some way at this time then that is truly humbling.

      I know that it will feel to you as though you have been scrambling over those boulders for an eternity, but it is still relatively early days and I can promise that things will eventually become easier to bear. It will happen slowly - so slowly that you won't realise how far you have travelled until you stop to look at the road behind you - but it will happen. I never cease to be amazed by our resilience in the face of even the rawest grief and took much comfort early on from people like George Bonnano who have established that for the vast majority of us - around 80-90% - some form of normal function reasserts itself within the first 12-24 months. Only a small minority get caught in the tangle of complicated grief and even then with proper support this can be worked through.

      Yes, the period after the acute grief of the first few months has faded can bring its own challenges but they take a very different form and are not remotely comparable to those in the incredibly painful early days. Nothing is as bad as that ever again. They are the challenges of recovery and building a new life - working out our 'Plan B' - rather more than mourning the loss of the old life. It doesn't really matter where we are in the construction of that new normal as long as we can always see that we are making some progress towards it. That is for the future though - for now hold on to the thought that every day survived is one that you will never need to go through again.

      I wish you much peace, hope and strength.


  2. Gary,
    I discovered your blog by reading a post on Alliance for Hope, and eventually ended up here. I lost my best soul mate to suicide on November18th, 2015. Our life together was brief. We met in July of 2011, and married in February of 2013. Never has another person taught me more about living life well than my husband Tom. So much of what you have written resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your experience. While I am deeply saddened when I hear another life has been lost to suicide I appreciate when people share their experience as it gives a glimmer of hope that there will be healing.
    Thank you,
    Lana Nielsen-Ream.