We already know that Christmas can suck like a Dyson if you don’t have the family portrait peddled to us by consumer marketing departments each year. You know the type: snow white-haired grandparents in shades of neutral linen and chambray blue handing over boxes wrapped with ribbons and bows made for a giant to pearly-teethed children wearing leather, unscuffed sneakers.
But a life with permanent stylists isn’t achievable for the average modern family with cracks and wood rot threatening to collapse under the pressure of familial tension that Christmas traditionally brings.
Add grief to an already pressure-filled mix and Christmas is enough to make those who have lost a loved one in the year prior shut the front door, turn off the lights and crawl under the doona with a jar of cinnamon-spiced Xanax for the entire holiday season.
I lost my mother six weeks ago. Too close to Christmas for me to really care about fairy lights and gift wrapping, though brandy and rum balls have certainly increased their appeal. Her name was Joy — she was made for Christmas. Which is why a simple piped Christmas carol can have me sobbing without warning in aisle six at the local supermarket.
In the first few weeks of shock post her death I foolishly thought I could control when or where the tears would hit. But that’s like thinking you can control the tides or send the earth in the opposite direction round the sun. I have since resigned myself to a quiet tear in a bank queue, a misty eye in the dog park or one full cathartic break down behind the wheel of my car, stereo blasting.
The trouble is we live in a Western homogenized world that doesn’t acknowledge grief past the funeral. We are not taught when we are young that dying is a part of life, your life and everyone else’s life. It is as natural as the first and last breathe we take and appears in every life force around us. There is a beginning, middle and end to everything.
Instead we seek eternal youth. We buy hope in a jar to turn back the years with cosmetic creams, spend hours at the gym in the quest for smooth undimpled thighs and dye the grey out of our hair lest anyone suspect for a moment that we are human and experiencing the limit of time given to each of us.
If we live in a world of denial around aging, how can we possibly know what to say to those impacted by what aging represents — death?
In the weeks during my mother’s deterioration and then her inevitable demise I witnessed the discomfort of those who struggle in the face of other’s vulnerability and loss. I have seen people, for the first time post-death, who know she has died but say nothing.
Yet they chitter chatter with white noise and over disclosure in a bid to keep the fear of vulnerability at bay. Anything but acknowledge the truth before them.
Here’s a tip: I don’t have leprosy, and death is not contagious, though it will eventually come for you too. Not mentioning the death of my mother, the person who gave me life, who birthed me, bathed me and was forever present in my world, only makes it easier for you, or so you think.
I will not break down into a flood of a thousand tears, howling at the sky if you acknowledge the significant event that has created a new world for me. And if I do, then so what?
Those in grief are acutely sensitive to loss. Friends that go missing in action, and they do, without a word of explanation during this crucial time only accentuate that loss. One of the best things you can say is “I don’t know what to say” or “it is too confronting for me,” for the acknowledgement itself opens up a dialogue.
Not inviting a grieving person to holiday events may be well-meaning, but again it represents the deafening silence the grieving person already deals with daily. Inviting them doesn’t mean they will come and drop inconsiderate salty tears into your eggnog and be found in the fetal position under the Christmas tree but again, so what if they do, because you can be guaranteed someone with flashing felt antlers and a reindeer sweater will do it anyway.
People in grief are akin to those in the early stages of love. They suffer from mention-itis, the ability to drop that person’s name into every conversation no matter how random. Let them.
Don’t shut them down or change the topic because they dared to mention the name of someone who dared to inconsiderately die in the three hundred and fifty odd days prior to Christmas. To do so is to say the deceased never existed when all they have left is memories.
Gestures do count, even declined invitations. Gestures mean someone is thinking about you and gestures reveal to the grieving that they are being thought about.
On one of the six final nights my mum spent in hospital I stood in the lift unable to contain the tears breaking the wells in my eyes. A stranger who shared the lift reached out and rubbed my back. Bless that stranger and their gesture forever.
I have since arrived at my local café to find a friend who had been at the café before me had paid for my breakfast the next time I came in. I have come home to a photo book of puppies on my front door, to flowers sent five weeks after with a note about “understanding the silence,” to a bag of groceries and a soulful recipe for the heart that explained the ingredients within.
I haven’t seen any of these people. I didn’t need to — the gestures have meant it all.
Loss leaves us vulnerable but there is truth, authenticity and courage in vulnerability when you remain present to all that the grief process reveals. I am as grateful for my mother’s life as my mother’s death for both have brought new life to me in different ways.
If you truly want to give something to someone who is grieving this Christmas, then give your presence for even a moment. Wrap your vulnerability up with a red ribbon and hand it over: You’ll be surprised what a true present that is and where that connection can lead.