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Coping With Christmas After the Loss of My Parents


The word can mean many different things to many different people. To some people, it may be an opportunity to indulge in consumerism and share about it on social media. To others, it may be a deeply important religious holiday (Blessed Yule, Happy Hanukkah and best wishes of the season to all my brothers and sisters around the globe). Many people might argue, however, that the “true meaning of Christmas” is family. Spending time with your loved ones. This fact can make this time of year particularly hard for some people. Those from toxic or broken families, and those who have lost those loved ones who made their lives special.

In 1990, I was 7 years old. We received some news I don’t think it’s possible for a 7-year-old to really comprehend. Being told “Mum has cancer” is something no person ever wants to hear. To hear it so young was almost indescribable. From what I’ve seen, kids can be incredibly adaptable and can tend to accept things into their version of reality more easily than some adults. I didn’t cry, I don’t remember feeling particularly “sad” about it, I just accepted it as a fact and part of my life. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by it. I remember vague worries of her not being around forever. I remember a feeling of having to be “strong” for everyone else. My sister was four years younger than me, my dad was obviously worried, Mum was focusing on treatment and keeping that fantastic, beautiful smile on her face despite everything. I remember inner turmoil. I didn’t want my parents to think I couldn’t handle what was happening. I wanted them to think I was coping and I was OK; I didn’t want them to be worried about me because they had so much to worry about already. I remember feeling like this even when I was that young. I think that mindset stayed without me throughout my life, as I’m still the same now. Throughout my childhood and emerging young adulthood, I kept my struggles inside because I didn’t think they were worth worrying anyone about.

Mum had surgery and chemotherapy, and the cancer went away for a few years. This cycle continued for the next 23 years, until December 15, 2013. Three years ago today, she finally left this plane of existence. Now, if that is the only thing I tell you of my life, you might think I’d had a pretty sad childhood, and you couldn’t be more wrong. Aside from my Mum’s illness, I had an amazing childhood. My parents were bright, warm, loving and creative people. We were nurtured and encouraged to be ourselves. I remember long, hazy summer nights of music, drinking, eating and dancing. I remember sitting, talking and listening — hearing of my parents rich and full life as musicians, artists and writers. I feel incredibly lucky to have the parents and childhood that I did, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, unless I could make that one thing go away.

Christmas was always magical. They both went to so much effort. Baking and cooking, getting us involved in crafts. I remember on Christmas Eve I would always lie in bed, warm and happy, hearing them both wrapping presents. I could hear music and tipsy giggling when they would sneak into our rooms with our stockings. Christmas day was always wonderful. Funny thing is, I don’t remember how many presents I got or how much money they spent — just the feeling of love and family. I remember my sister would always sneak into my room in the early hours, and we’d open our stockings together. Talking in whispers so we didn’t wake anyone else up. Up until three years ago, Christmas was my favorite time of year. Then everything changed.

When Mum died, it was sadness tinged with a sense of relief. She had been strong for so long. She deserved a rest. We were unable to have the funeral until after Christmas, and in truth, I remember very little of that year’s “festive” season. We tried to band together and help each other through. My mum and dad had been childhood sweethearts and married nearly 50 years (it would have been 50 next May), so we felt we had to hold things together for Dad. For all the pain we felt, I can’t imagine what Dad must have been going through.

The next year was so hard. I was going through a lot in my personal life, and I have no clue how I even made it through that time, but I did. My daughter was 3, and she needed me. So I did what parents do: I sucked it up and got on with it. I started to feel like I could take some strength from what had happened — the strength that Mum had in abundance. I started to feel positive about the future. Then, just over a year after we lost Mum, my dad was diagnosed with advanced lung and throat cancer. There is a big part of me that thinks Dad may have known he was ill but was so focused on caring for Mum that he ignored it. I may be wrong, and I hope people don’t think less of me for thinking that, but it felt so much like he was just holding on for her. Dad got very ill very quickly, and six months after being diagnosed, he went to join Mum in that other place. I’ve never been religious, but I can understand why people take comfort in it. Eighteen months on, and it still feels like losing the two of them was one long, slow event. I don’t think of it as two things happening separately. It feels very much like one big loss. It hurts so much to know that Dad never really got to live again after Mum was gone. But part of me wonders if he even wanted to. I’m not sure if I would, knowing my children were all grown up and had families of their own.

So now, I’m lost at sea. I have to be the magic maker. I have to be the warmth, the love and the wonder of Christmas for my family. I feel like I could never possibly measure up to what I had. I don’t know how to do Christmas without them. My daughter is so excited. She is six next week, and there is magic and wonder just emanating from her sparkling brown eyes. I don’t know where it’s come from. I don’t feel like I have supplied it, so how is she making it? Does that magic come from the parents? The children? Is it just…there?

I’ve been stressing about it for weeks, wondering how I’m going to be able to give my daughter the wonderful Christmas I had as a child. We don’t have much money. We don’t have all the extended family that we see. That’s supposed to be the meaning of it all, isn’t it? What have I got to offer her if I don’t have that? And yet, I can see that magic and wonder in her, and I’m confused. Is it possible the magic doesn’t come from where I think it does? Is it really just as simple as love? Having it. Giving it. Being it. Is that really it? I’m thinking about it more right now because of the time of year, and because of the anniversary of the day my world fell apart, but these feelings are with me all the time. Am I a good enough mum? Is my daughter going to look back on her childhood the way I do? Why can’t I just call up my wise old folks and let them reassure me I’m doing fine and everything will be OK?

But I look at my daughter. I hear her smile and laugh. I see the sparkle in her eyes. I feel her hug me and tell me I’m the best mum in the world, and I feel like she means it, even if part of me doesn’t believe it. It seems to me, all children want is love. They may seem to care about “stuff,” but as adults, that most likely won’t be what they remember. They will probably remember laughing, loving and being loved above all else. This Christmas, just remember that. If you have lost people, then know there are others who love you. Even if you feel like no one in the world cares, just know that some people out there care about every living thing, and that includes you. We can see evidence of that every day in the good deeds of friends and strangers. In selfless acts of charity and kindness. It can be easy to become bitter, especially after loss and struggle. Don’t let it beat you. Those loved ones wouldn’t want that for you, and neither do I.

So this year, I’m going to ask you all to do me a favor. Let your loved ones know they’re loved. If you feel you have no one, then reach out and let someone else who has no one know you care. We are none of us alone, even if we feel it. And our loved ones will always be there. It may be a cliche, but the love we feel doesn’t disappear just because they do. If they aren’t around to receive it, then we can share it elsewhere. Be kind.  Do good. Give love.

After all, that’s all that really matters.

Image via Thinkstock.

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