The whole world paused and grieved on Boxing Day 2004 when a devastating tsunami swept over 14 countries, killing 230,000 people in its destructive waves. Do you remember where you were when this incredible news hit you? I was following the tragic events on TV in the family home of my partner at the time, seated next to his father on the sofa. And as we sat there staring at the surreal news of families being torn apart, homes, lives and livelihoods at the other side of the world being crushed, I was going through my own personal moment of grief.
What do you do when the magic of Christmas is gone?
While the whole family was obviously shocked by what we were witnessing on TV, my father-in-law (my partner and I were never married, but let’s just use this term for ease), was especially tearful and hurt by the pain these people he had never met were going through. And as I watched his genuine reaction of grief, I had great difficulty repressing the tears in my eyes. Because it was extremely difficult to see how moved he was by these anonymous people’s suffering, knowing he had terminal cancer.
It turned out to be our last Christmas together.
Over a period of 1.5 years I saw how he was eventually devoured by cancer. As his body slowly and cruelly turned itself against him, he reached the point he wasn’t able to get out of bed anymore. He suffered morphine-induced hallucinatory dreams and one day he thought he was waking up from a bad dream in which he was dying from cancer. I wish it had been just a bad dream. He was the most generous, cheeky and unselfish man I’ve ever known and having to say goodbye to him was one of the most difficult things in my life. Just a few days before his death, unable to speak anymore, he grabbed my hand and planted a kiss on it. It wasn’t the first time I saw a family member die in front of my eyes, but up to then it was the most painful one.
And as the first Christmas without him approached, I realised that these ‘festive holidays’ are so much focussed on family gatherings and happiness. It’s a time we all just ‘have’ to be merry and jolly with our loved ones, but what about those whose families and hearts are broken?
How do you cope with grief at Christmas?
Since my father-in-law’s death, Christmas lost all its glitter for me. Granted, the Christmas magic I felt as a young girl had gone years before, but there was always a joy to be found in relaxing and enjoying copious amounts of food, whilst being surrounding by those closest to me.
But there seems to be such a taboo on grief at Christmas. It’s very confrontational having shop window-displays telling me it’s the most festive season of the year and Christmas cards ordering me to be merry and jolly. I can’t help feeling guilty around Christmas time. Am I a bad person for not fully appreciating the wonderful and loving people I’m lucky to still be able to surround myself with?
The pain deepens
A few years after my father-in-law’s death, my partner and I broke up after sharing our lives for 11 years. I met hubby and in our first few years together, we’ve dealt with decades worth of emotions and struggles. First there was the dilemma of the long-distance relationship, then my immigration to a new country where I knew no one else, moving in together, working in a job that made so unhappy and ultimately the wedding proposal, which was soon followed by the sudden death of my mother-in-law while we were on ‘pre-honeymoon’ in Australia.
She had been admitted to hospital very unexpectedly and was diagnosed with cancer that had invaded her whole body. How that was never picked up on before while she had been in hospital for several medical check-ups is a complete mystery to me. Within a couple of days her situation worsened and she slipped into a coma. We flew back home and upon return sat by her bed for days until we had to make that unbearable decision to switch off the life support and see her slip out of this world.
We had given ourselves six months to arrange our wedding and in the middle of this ‘happy time’ we now also had to make funeral arrangements. Followed by finding new housing for my brother-in-law who was kicked out their family home where he had lived all of his life by the landlord a mere few weeks after his mother’s death.
To say it was a terribly stressful time would be an understatement. I lost so much weight at the time, I have a whole shelf in my cupboard filled with clothing I can’t possibly fit in anymore. And even if I did, I would be hesitant to wear those sorrow-soaked garments again. To give you an idea of what we went through these 18 months, it’s best to read hubby’s intimate blog post in which he tells about how he lost both his mother and brother to cancer.
A few months later it was Christmas again. Hubby and I invited my brother-in-law over and we spent the day watching films and eating the same snacks they would have at home for Christmas.
Sitting close to each other on the sofa, hubby and I noticed these weird guttural noises my brother-in-law made whenever he ate something. We thought it was annoying but didn’t make more of it. Until, 8 months later when the oncologist told us the day before my brother-in-law’s 55th birthday he had terminal oesophageal cancer that had spread to his bones, lymph nodes and organs. Again, I witnessed a loved one being completely eaten up by cancer from the inside, transforming the person to a living skeleton, barely able to communicate or even to open their eyes. He died three months later at early December.
I often read about people ‘passing away peacefully’ but having now witnessed the deaths of five family members, I can’t say they’ve ever been peaceful. I can’t share these personal details, but my brother-in-law’s death was traumatising and a memory I’ll never be able to wipe out.
As a few weeks passed, Christmas had arrived once again. How completely different this Christmas was from the one just two years before. Hubby had no direct family left anymore and while we spent Christmas with my family, hubby’s heart was shattered into uncountable pieces. It’s been five years ago now, but he’s never been able to glue those pieces back together again. And though the pain exists all year round, it’s ever present at Christmas time.
From a young age, we’re told Christmas is the one time of the year we need to spend with our loved ones. But no one prepares you for that time when your loved ones are no longer there.
Do you need help coping with grief at Christmas time?
This week writer Flora Baker published a moving article about how she copes with the loss of her parents at Christmas time and gives some tried and tested tips to make it through a grief-filled Christmas season.
Whether you’re grieving for your loved ones like my hubby and also my sweet friend Esther, going through a painful divorce like one of my best friends, battling with cancer like an acquaintance of mine on Instagram, lost your job, or whatever painful and difficult time you’re experiencing: I send you warm thoughts of support to help you get through this Christmas. And if you’re lucky to enjoy an ‘untainted’ Christmas this year, I hope you get to spend it with the people you love.
‘Happy’ Christmas to all of you!
Love, Zarina xx