Essays

How can you enjoy Christmas when you’re grieving?

It’s the 10th of December as I write this, which means the festive season is truly underway. My advent calendar is peppered with open doors, the christmas tree is covered with glistening lights, and it genuinely, actually snowed today.

If it were any other year, I’d be at my happiest. I’d be excitedly anticipating the time off work, I’d be laughing with friends over mulled wine and picking out Secret Santa presents. I mean, I still am doing all of those things, but it’s the happy part that is lacking. Because I’m still trying to figure out how to be properly, truly happy when the happiest person I know doesn’t exist in the world anymore.

My Grandma, my amazing mum’s amazing mum, died in August and it was – is – the first time I’ve ever really experienced grief. My Grandpa has been ill this year; there was an episode in April where he started throwing up blood in our kitchen and we thought he was going to die. My Grandma flung her arms around him and sobbed. He recovered, but the doctors told him he had cancer everywhere. I’ve spent this year worrying sick about him; every time I visited, I’d linger for a few more seconds on our goodbye hug. I’d look into his eyes and say ‘Love you Grandpa’ very seriously so that he knew, just in case that was the last time I’d see him. When I said goodbye to Grandma, it was normal. Of course there was always a big hug, and a ‘love you’, but I didn’t realise I had to say it with such intention. I didn’t think it would be her to go – not yet.

She went into hospital for a stent – a routine, easy procedure and quite common for someone of her age – but there were complications and she didn’t wake up. The last time I spoke to her was a few days before, to wish her luck. She, as always, turned the conversation swiftly away from herself and asked me how work was, what I was up to that weekend, how much she was looking forward to seeing me next Sunday for lunch at my parents’ house. I was late getting ready to see my friends so I rushed her off the phone. The next day I posted a picture on Instagram with the friends I had seen, and she commented about how she hoped I had fun, but I didn’t respond – I was hungover, and forgot.

I know it’s ridiculously self-absorbed to think had I seen her in those couple of days before she had gone, or spent longer on the phone to her that night, that it would make me feel any better. But still, I try to replay that conversation over in my head, kicking myself for not being more interested in how she was, for not making sure she knew she was one of my favourite people in the entire world. I wish I had gone through every single reason why I loved her.

I’m not really sure how people do it, when they have complicated relationships with their loved ones who die, especially if they go in a painful or elongated way. There’s so much guilt and trauma involved. Luckily, I have neither of those. She died peacefully on the operating table, not knowing it was coming, and when I’m being rational with myself I can say she knew without any doubt at all, just how much I, and all my family, absolutely adored her. I shouldn’t feel any guilt, and I’m not traumatised from having to watch her die, so it’s the best possible scenario to experience grief, I suppose.

But I do have to deal with missing her, and that hits me in waves. There was the shock of course when I first found out, and that was elongated for a week because we are Jewish and we sat Shiva at our house. I spoke at her funeral with my cousin, and when she was buried my family cried and told ourselves she wasn’t in that coffin, her spirit was too alive to be locked inside a box. It was a relief when that was over, and my family went on a pre-planned holiday to Israel for my cousin’s wedding (my Grandpa insisted weddings take priority over deaths in Judaism). I thought we were over the worst of it.

But the realisation that she was gone hit me again and again like I was on a tennis court without a racket. When I got my new job, it jolted me because she would have always been the first one I’d call (and she was always the most proud and thrilled). It washed over me every time I saw my Grandpa, on his own, without his sidekick and partner. It hit me when I stood in her wardrobe, picking out some clothes to keep, and realised she would never see me wear them. And it strikes me every few nights as I lie in bed, panicking that her voice and laugh and smell that I can recall so clearly now might eventually fade away as the years go by.

And now, when I think of Christmas, it’s another punch in the gut. As a child, my mum always bought us an extortionate amount of presents, and we’d lay them out in our bedrooms and pretend we were opening a shop. Grandma would always come in and expect us to go through each present one by one, before adding stacks more. She would be the biggest laugh at the table, and when she left, she’d sing a goodbye song with my Grandpa. They’d dance around the hallway and we’d all be laughing and cheering, and that’s how I always think of Christmas. Occasionally, her and Grandpa would go to my auntie’s for Christmas instead. We always joked that they’d stolen them, and Christmas was never quite as joyful.

This year, my Grandpa will be coming to ours for Christmas alone. I love him dearly, and I want to be there for him and look after him, but seeing him is a painful reminder that she’s no longer with us. He’s doing great; he said he doesn’t want us to remember him as going completely downhill after she died. He’s bought new clothes, he’s getting out and about, he’s trying to do all the things she did for us. But sometimes, when he’s sitting at the dinner table, you can see him completely zone out as if it’s hitting him all over again too. And it takes all the strength in the world not to burst into tears every time I look at his face.

But I have to try to hold it together for him, and my mum too. How can I possibly be experiencing anything close to what she is? They were incredibly close; almost too close, given their ages. My Grandma never lived more than a 20-minute drive away, they spoke on the phone every day (sometimes multiple times) and had so many shared interests; dogs, good TV, gossip. They never fought, they always laughed. My strong mum struggles every single day, and I know there’s not a thing I can say to make it better.

So there comes my question: how can you let yourself be happy, and enjoy all the things you would usually enjoy, when there’s a big gaping hole in your life and your family that can never be filled? When I’m drinking that mulled wine, and laughing and enjoying myself, I feel guilty. How can I possibly be happy when she’s not around, when my Grandpa is sleeping alone and my mum is crying every night. It doesn’t feel right.

I try to remind myself of how lucky I am; not everyone has someone like that in their life, not least a grandparent. And not everyone gets to go 22 years without losing someone special. I’m trying to look back on all the memories, staying over at her house and all the lullabies she sang, the trips and the days out, the reassuring words, the cuddles and the two-hour-long phone-calls, and be grateful. But gratitude is often sadly outweighed by pain and loss.

I know when I write these blog posts, I always seem to have a turning point. Apparently it’s my thing, making a positive out of a negative, learning something about myself, seeing the bright side. I don’t think I can with this one. All I can do is try to imagine that all the light and positivity and warmth that spilled out of her – basically the embodiment of Christmas – will get me through this festive season. And the next one, and the next.

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