What the loss of a loved one at Christmas time has shown me

Christmas after the loss of a loved one can be a difficult time.
Christmas after the loss of a loved one can be a difficult time. Photo: Shutterstock

Two weeks ago I lost my sister-in-law, Milly. My husband lost his little sister, my in-laws lost their daughter, and my son lost his beloved aunty. I write "lost" because that's what we say to soften the blow of the awful truth - she died. Surrounded by her loved ones, we said goodbye to this beautiful 37-year-old woman in a room full of laughter, tears and clutched fingers. Life won't ever be the same – how could it?

It's strange, this fresh grief at Christmas. There's a lump in my throat as I walk into shopping centres. Carols playing on loop are too loud, too upbeat, and the tinsel is garish. Slogans like "Peace on Earth" and "Joy to the World" make my heart curl up inside in my chest. I'm aware of it, my heart, the ache of it, as I navigate a world in party mode. Christmas feels all wrong this year.

At home, while we haven't put up our tree, there are lights strung over our balcony. My husband draped them methodically through the lattice as his sister lay in hospital, the mundane task a distraction as we waited for news. Now they seem out of place, a blinking reminder that life goes on, even when you're not quite ready for it.

The truth is, I want to ignore the festive season this year. I want to hide under a blanket and let it all pass in a blur of champagne and wrapping paper. And for three days I do, I stay in bed, only getting up to take my son to and from school. I feel the tug of depression, the early warning signs telling me to slow down, to process the loss, to go gently.

As a mum, I can't ignore Christmas entirely. My son brings home paintings of stars and nativity sets. He sings Jingle Bells and talks incessantly about Santa. Downstairs, he writes a list of the gifts he'd like. Upstairs, my husband writes his eulogy. I realise we haven't done a Santa photo yet, the yearly tradition pushed aside in the rush to arrange a funeral service. And I feel a fierce pang of guilt.

At the shops, I am struck by how jarring it all is – this need, this want, this consumption. Strangers jostle elbows, bump into one another without saying sorry, snap at shop attendants. I have a visceral reaction to a man walking through Kmart with toys stacked in a pile, peering around the tower of Lego and Barbie he's about to purchase. But it's not the man himself, for I've done the same last minute dash in previous years. It's seeing Christmas, the way it's become, through the lens of grief – and wanting to cry at the sheer, chaotic, ugliness of it all.

I yell at my son for something silly and then burst into tears. "It's okay Mummy," he says. "Daddy told me it's okay to be sad." It is my darling, I tell him. It is. He draws a picture of his aunty to hang at her funeral and scrawls his name at the top.

At my sister-in-law's wake, 10 days before Christmas, I bounce a relative's baby on my hip. His chocolate-drop eyes smile as I pull faces at him. My son runs up and down the corridor with his cousins. Later, they blame the yellow trail of Cheezels left across the carpet on the Christmas Elf. In the kitchen I hold my mother-in-law, wrap my arms around her. There are no words and I don't try to find any. We stand together in silence.

As the children play, oblivious to this house of grief, I reflect on the powerful, humbling way death shocks you back into life. It's a cliché that loss puts life into perspective, causes you to take stock of who you are and how you're living. But it feels particularly stark at Christmas time, on the cusp of a brand new year. I can't avoid Christmas completely – and as the days after the funeral pass, I realise I don't really want that either. What I do want, however, what I need, is simplicity: laughter, hugs, swims in the pool, backyard cricket and watching the kids squeal with delight on the Slip'n'Slide in the hot sun.

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"I went out today and everyone was so happy," my other sister-in-law tells me. "I wanted to say to them, 'What are you all so happy about?'" And while she doesn't spell it out I know exactly what she means to say: "My big sister just died. How are you all going about your days like nothing has happened?

We all need simplicity this year.

And so, Christmas 2017 won't be about gifts or carols or even my favourite festive treat – mince pies. Instead, in honour of Milly, it will be about spending time with the people I adore, the people who make me laugh until it hurts, who love me and tease me and want the best for me. I'll focus on gratitude, for the past, for the present and for the future, for everything we've been through as a family and all that's yet to come. In the end, that's what matters – love, kindness and family.

And to my dearest sister-in-law: thank you for the urgent, but gentle reminder to focus on what's really important in this one, wild and precious life. I'll carry it, you, always.