Surviving Christmas Without A Loved One


It’s the most wonderful time of the year. You’re putting up your tree and hoping all of the lights work. You’re hanging stockings over the fireplace and putting elves on shelves, and your home is twinkling with Christmas magic. Christmas songs fill the airwaves, the bars and the clubs and everywhere you go people are in good form and filled with holiday cheer. This is ordinarily a joyous time of year meant for pubs, parties and celebrations with friends and family. There is an unwritten expectation of being merry and full of the holiday spirit. But for many who will be facing their first Christmas without a loved one, Christmas can also bring tremendous grief.


Whether it be the first year without them or the tenth, Christmas Day can be a daunting prospect for anyone who has lost a child, a parent, a grandparent, or, indeed, any loved one. For my siblings and I, this will be the first Christmas without either of our parents and though we knew it was never going to be easy, as it draws closer, the reality of just how tough it will be is becoming very clear.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a Christmas person. It’s my favourite time of year. I look forward to pulling the decorations out of the attic (and buying new ones) and making the house look like the amazing houses I’d always seen in American Christmas movies as a child. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve spent thousands on Christmas decorations in the last ten years. One year I paid nearly €600 to have two massive LED lanterns for the front door shipped in from America – which my late father accidently sent them to the dump a few months later when cleaning out the shed. I nearly killed him when I found out what he’d done and he nearly killed me when he found out how much I’d spent on them.


I believe the Buddy The Elf part of my personality came from my mother who also loved this time of year and the over-the-top decoration tradition started as a way to make her return home after nearly a year in hospital even more special. My late mother Mary battled illness for almost 25 years but she became seriously ill at the beginning of 2007. She spent most of that year in a coma battling for her life but had recovered enough to be able to be cared for in the home by December. When we got the good news that she was allowed to come home my sister and I went to Dunnes and Woodies and purchased the most beautiful Christmas decorations we could find and made the house as magical as we possibly could for her homecoming.



From that year on the Winter Wonderland dercorations became a tradition in our house and every year became an attempt to top the years prior. The project would usually start around the last week of November to be ready for December 1st. Friends and family would visit the house to see the decorations and though he would always complain that there were too many lights to have to turn off, my father would beam with pride whenever he had the opportunity to take someone on a tour of our Winter Wonderland.


This year however, there is no Winter Wonderland and all the decortions will remain in storage.


When you’ve lost someone you love, suddenly the whole feel of Christmas changes. The lights don’t sparkle as brightly as they used to, and things that you used to look forward to now bring about feelings of sadness and pain. As anyone who’s experienced the process of bereavement will know, there’s no clear cut path. When you feel like you’ve turned a corner, you’re thrown back a few steps by a birthday or an anniversary or in this case, the Christmas period.



There have been a few occasions since my dads passing in April that have heightened my vulnerability and thrown me off course. The first was the wedding of one of my best friends because it hammered home the realisation of how the top table will look on my wedding day and the fact the my kids will never meet their wonderful grandparents. The next was my own Birthday because every year – like clockwork – my dad would phone me at 8.30am to wish me a happy birthday. But the onset of Christmas has been by far the toughest I’ve experienced since the death itself.


As I’ve said, the Christmas tradition of decorating our home like something from a Chritsmas movie won’t happen this year. Not just because it would feel disrespectful and almost like flaunting our loss, but because the house itself is no longer my home. My brother and his family now live in that house, which is wonderful as it keeps it in our family, but it’s their home, not mine and that’s something that I’ve been struggling with for a few months. Not the fact that there’s no where to decorate, it’s the fact that the family home, in what we always knew it as, is no longer there. Though I never fully realised it when my parents were alive, the family home was always my safe place. No matter where i was living or what I was doing, I could always go home for a few days and spend time with my dad. I can’t do that anymore and it kills me.



I guess I also have a relationship of sorts with Christmas itself and that’s led to mixed emotions too in a way. At times, I look around and I see the lights and the commercials and the excited nieces and nephews and I’m filled with joy again but before long I start to feel guilty for feeling that joy. I guess I’m lucky in a way because I havn’t developed a cynical attutude towards the season like some others who’ve been bereaved have.


The worst part of all is of course the fact that for the first time in our lives, neither of our parents will be with us to celebrate Christmas. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother was very ill for many years before she passed away in 2013. While that Christmas was a very sad affair, it doesn’t compare to this one for a fe reasons. When my mother returned home at Christmas in 2007, hr ordeal had left her brain damaged and for the remaining years of her life her health slowly declined until she passed away. In many ways, we grieved for our mother in 2007 as the woman who raised us never returned after that point. Our father on the other hand, passed away very suddenly and we are still dealing with that pain on a daily basis. Thinking about the fact that there will be no place set at the table for him this year, there will be no gifts given to him and he won’t be forced to wear a Raindeer jumper for all the photos is quiet frankly heartbreaking.


So much so, that for the last month or so I’ve been trying not to think about it. Recently, I've felt as if my thoughts were always engaged in battle. Every bit of joy or Christmas cheer was trumped by the fact that my dad was not there to experience it too or even guilt over the fact the I was allowing myself to be happy when I should be feeling sad. And whenever I became aware of the sadness I would very quickly shut it out for fear it would overcome me. I was struggling internally with my grief and the fear of feeling my grief so I started going to counselling again and I started talking to people who've been through this already



Now, I’m not telling this story for the sympathy of every person who reads it. I’m telling it because I believe it’s important for people to hear, especially this time of year. It’s necessary to understand that not every person will be joyful during the holiday season. Maybe you know someone who will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Take them out for a meal, offer to watch their kids for a night, take them out for a drink, or just let them know that you get it. If you encounter someone who seems grumpy or sad, maybe even a bit rude, or just not in a Christmas mood, don’t be so quick to write them off as a Grinch. Appreciate the fact that the holidays are not always wonderful, joyful, and magical for everyone. And if you've lost a loved one and you're facing your first Christmas without them, here are some tips that I've been given recently that could help you cope.


Acknowledge Your Feelings


In my mind, it was best to push all the pain away and block out any feelings of sadness. Burying your feelings, or trying to ignore your grief will work for a little while but I knew that it would actually make things more painful in the long term. In the last eight months, I've found that the anticipation of an occasion can be harder than the day itself, just because you don't know how we're going to cope, or what the day will bring. So, by acknowledging your loss, acknowledging your grief, and allowing yourself to go gently into Christmas, it can sometimes ease the stress of the big day itself.


Honour Them


Although your loved one may not physically be there at Christmas, you can still make them a part of the day. A symbolic gesture like lighting a candle, or placing one of their favourite items on the Christmas table, can help everyone feel like loved one is ‘there' with you. Sharing memories, or toasting to them can be a lovely way to keep them involved. Some people I've spoken to still set a place at the table for the person they've lost and some still buy a gift for that person. While these are lovely traditions that work for them, I can honestly say it wouldn't work for me and would really upset me but I'm aware of that so I'm not going to attempt it. And it's important to state that if you don't feel you can cope with doing any of these things, then don't. Really it's about what you can handle on the day, and you call the shots. It's common to feel guilty if you have fun moments, or if you don't think about the person who has passed as much as you believe that you should. But you really don't have to feel guilty about anything. You are allowed to do, or not do, whatever you want.


Make New Traditions


Sometimes new traditions arise from loss. It could be visiting their grave after dinner, asking everyone to dress a certain way or wear a particular colour, playing a new board game with the kids, or watching a movie together that has special meaning. Sometimes this can be a way to bring some of that spark back into Christmas. It may be a different kind of spark, but still meaningful nonetheless.


But Don't Skip Routines


The first Christmas without a loved one will make you want to just skip all the usual routines of the day. But keeping at least one core routine (i.e. get up, have breakfast, go to mass, prepare the dinner) can be very helpful in coping with your grief and in putting one foot in front of the other. The actual celebration of Christmas Day might not be the same without that person, but if you at least have a basic routine in place, and you know what's coming up, it can help you emotionally survive the day.


Accept Help


Many people, including myself, fall into the habit of responding with, "No, I'm grand," when asked if they need help or if everything is alright. While I've been battling my own feelings lately, I also withdrew from my social circle a little and the only people I confided in about how I was feeling were my siblings and my two closest friends. In some ways, that's more than most would but I would say to anyone who's going through a similar experience that during this vulnerable period, talk to your friends and family and take all the offers of help you can. Christmas can be a stressful time of the year at the best of times, the first Christmas since you lost your loved one can be even more so. Having people to talk to or take things off your to-do list, can ease the burden for you. It can also allow you to take some time out to process what's gone on. 


Christmas might never be the same when you've lost a loved one, but it can take on new forms and new meanings for you and your family. My Mam and Dad are never far away from my thoughts and I know that despite all of the work I've done lately, it remains almost unavoidable that this Christmas will be one that's filled with moments of sadness. But I take comfort from the fact that my Christmas spirit is still alive within me and in the years to come when I have a home and a family of my own I can resume some of our family Christmas traditions without feeling the sadness or guilt that currently surround them.


Patrick McLoughney