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If Getting Sick Made You an Emotional Mess, 'Last Christmas' Might be Uncomfortably Relatable

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This piece contains spoilers for “Last Christmas.”

Life is unpredictable — and well, frankly, living with an illness makes it that much more unpredictable. As I watched “Last Christmas,” it took me back to many of the same thoughts and feelings I experienced as I walked my own journey with chronic illness.

“Last Christmas” is a romantic comedy that explores the highs and lows of a young woman named Kate (Emilia Clarke) who was struck by a sudden illness years before. And although she has worked to overcome this physical illness, which we learn later in the movie led to a heart transplant, she still has other hurdles to overcome, including some mental health struggles. Throughout the movie, we see Kate struggle in her career, with her family, her friends and even with romantic relationships. She makes continual bad choices until one day she realizes, thanks to a gentleman named Tom (Henry Golding), she has to look up and observe the world around her.

Tom came into Kate’s life on a day she felt like everything was crashing down. She’s at work dusting things in a window display when she sees Tom outside, looking up. When she walks out of the store and asks him what he’s looking at, a bird poops on her head. Tom tells her getting “poo’ed on by a bird” is good luck, which is something she desperately needs. 

She runs into Tom later that night, and they walk through the park and explore town. Throughout the movie, all of their interactions are random run-ins, but they become important to Kate. When she’s with Tom, she’s able to let go of some of her bitterness and actually smiles and laughs a bit.

When Kate hits rock bottom (she has run out of friends’ couches to sleep on, she messes up majorly at work, her relationship with her family becomes even more strained, news from her latest doctor’s visit is not the greatest and she loses contact with Tom), she realizes she must do better. She begins volunteering and slowly realizes it’s OK to be more vulnerable. She reconnects with Tom and finally opens up about her medical history. From this point, we see Kate grow and truly turn her life around. That is, until Tom tells her she can’t rely on him. Kate takes this news hard — Tom was the catalysis for her restored self-esteem and helped her become more vulnerable.

As the movie comes to an end, there’s a twist. Kate goes to Tom’s apartment and sees a strange gentleman. When she asks about Tom’s whereabouts, she learns that Tom is actually dead — and has been dead the whole time she “knew” him. As she experiences flashbacks to scenes earlier in the movie, we see Tom was never actually there. In reality, he was her heart transplant donor and that’s why they were so connected. 

Although Kate is shocked, the movie ends on a bright note: Kate hosts a fundraiser at the homeless shelter she’s been volunteering at (where Tom also volunteered). Other things in her life come full circle and her relationships are restored. 

Overall, “Last Christmas” was a good movie. It portrayed a different side of illness that is not often seen — the raw, emotional and messy way it can affect your whole life. Here are some takeaways from the movie I think others with chronic illness might relate to: 

1. Living with a chronic illness can be traumatizing.

After experiencing such a traumatizing medical emergency, Kate avoids her doctor’s appointments and her family — anything that could remind her of what happened. Until she meets Tom, she doesn’t have a safe place to talk about all the negative thoughts and feelings she experiences because of her health. Instead, her go-to coping mechanisms are getting wasted, exploding with anger at others and isolating herself. We can clearly see how her illness affects her mental health.

2. It can be hard to figure out who you are after a diagnosis.

When you’re diagnosed with any chronic illness, you have to figure out who you are with this new, ever-present aspect of yourself. In her deep conversations with Tom, we hear how Kate struggles to understand who she is with this new diagnosis. She struggles to let go of the “old her,” and doesn’t know who she’s supposed to be or what her life is supposed to be like.

3. Chronic illness can wreck your self-esteem.

You almost have to fall in love with who you are all over again… I know I did! Kate openly states in a heated discussion that she built up walls when her self-esteem hit rock bottom. 

4. Chronic illness changes your relationships.

When you live with a chronic illness, if can change the dynamic of all of your relationships. This was especially true in the relationship with Kate and her family, as well as Kate and Tom for a period of time. When Kate’s health became stable, she actually pushed her family away.

5. You can feel isolated from able-bodied or “well” people.

When your life changes significantly due to illness, it can become difficult to relate to people who don’t understand. Many may not catch it, but Kate shows some signs of illness throughout the movie before we learn about her health issues. For example, when she goes to crash on a friend’s couch, she falls asleep while her friend is talking to her. This is probably a relatable moment for chronic illness warriors — when you’re managing an illness, tired takes on a whole new meaning. We try to cover it up, but sometimes it’s truly difficult, and these subtle signs and symptoms set us apart from our able-bodied counterparts.

6. You need a support system — you cannot get out of that! 

As much as Kate tries to run from her family and friends, she eventually realizes she really does need a stable support system — and not just while she’s critically ill. When she opens her eyes to the world around her and deals with her physical and mental health issues, she’s able to welcome her support system. Support systems aren’t just about nagging you to take your medication and show up to appointments (which is what Kate’s family does). You also need a few people like Tom who provide a safe place to vent about your feelings. 

7. You still have a lot to give even when you’re sick.

Kate realized that she had a purpose, and that her gifts can be used for good. Kate ends up using her talents to give back to the community by fundraising for the homeless shelter. Despite her health troubles, she has a lot to give.

There is no instruction manual for how to live after a sudden illness — and “Last Christmas” is a good example of this. But throughout the messiness, and with some help, chronic illness warriors like Kate are able to grow. 


Did you see “Last Christmas”? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Originally published: November 14, 2019
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