Why I Haven't 'Canceled' Christmas After My Brother's Suicide
Christmas 2011 involved a visit to the funeral home to see my brother’s body in the casket and an evening where my parents and I, separately and silently but together, ignored the “Dr Who” Christmas Special blaring out of the TV in favor of drinking wine while looking through photos of Martin’s life, choosing our individual favorite moments as well as deciding what should be collated together for inclusion in the funeral image projection. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, given these circumstances, for any person to think that Christmas could never be marked by us “properly” again. But it would also be an incorrect assumption to say automatically “you must find Christmas so very hard” or suggest “well I just couldn’t do Christmas if that had happened to me” – it’s just not that clear cut.
It would be easy to respond and say “I have to ‘do’ Christmas for my 3-year-old daughter’s sake,” but this would be a fib. I “do” Christmas for me, having made the decision to love and engage in Christmas immediately after seeing my brother’s body that year. Christmas became something for me to aim for at this time of year, to actually help me cope.
Having the anniversary of my brother’s death a mere 10 days before Christmas Day doesn’t make this easy. From the first of December, I feel restless, have a little difficulty staying still for long, needing to be “doing” something. My concentration wanes, and I generally feel fed up with all around me. The question “oh, what’s the point?” forms frequently in mind. The initial Christmas buzz, although I do like the music and the food, does get to me a bit (and this is perhaps why I get my shopping done and decorations up at the end of November…), and I cannot avoid that gut-felt pang when I pass something I would totally want to buy Martin as a Christmas present.
The build-up to the anniversary of Martin’s death, however, has always been worse than the day itself, a day I have made about self-care. I spend the day alone as much as possible. I get my hair and nails done, have a massage if I can, and I always go to the cinema – Martin always loved movies, so rather than viewing the day as “the day he died,” I have renamed it “Film Day.” I do something he and I enjoyed together, and I am able to feel calm in the dark, remembering something positive about his life and our lives as brother and sister.
Come December 16, I give myself permission to fully join the land of the living again, and making Christmas as lovely as I can becomes a priority. I book theater tickets, seek out Christmas-based activities to visit and participate in. I do worry sometimes that I foist my Christmas ideals on those around me who are not quite so comfortable with it without Martin, but I explain why I do it to them, and I think they understand.
They do come with me, as it were; we still cry when we feel the need to, but we all seem able to continue together. I describe what Christmas meant to me before Martin died, especially in the period after I had left home for university; it was for me always about coming home to my family, feeling relaxed and warm together, and enjoying each other’s company. I still try to include Martin in this way, sharing my positive memory of him at Christmas. I buy presents for my mum and dad that he might have gone for, (I did that while he was alive anyway, lazy b*@&*r!). We have and I hope will continue to toast his presence at dinner, and we talk about him when a memory comes up. He is included, if not physically present, and Christmas to me still generates those feelings of comfort and together-ness warmth.
Getting through suicide loss anniversaries during the Christmas period takes a lot of energy. I know, for some, what I have described here is alien. They can’t or don’t want to acknowledge Christmas without their gone loved one. I sometimes worry this is a bad thing about me, that I should be more somber about this time of year, that it is disrespectful to my brother to seek out tinsel and glitter when he is no longer here, that I should “cancel Christmas.” But if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last five years since Martin left, there’s no one way to handle this experience of bereavement. Whatever needs to be the way for an individual after such a loss is right. For me, Christmas helps. It is a way to celebrate my current family, to remind myself of the need to be happy about life, while also accessing Martin’s presence, when the latter can be very hard to feel at other times of the year. In the words of Alexander Smith, “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”
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