Socially acceptable misery at Christmas

This year it’s seventeen years since my mother died.

We were due to spend Christmas with mum and dad anyway, as we knew it would be her last one. In the end, we had to rush home earlier after the phone call everyone with an ill relative dreads – come home now, and say goodbye. 

December was crap that year – we spent the whole month wondering if she’d make it to Christmas, especially as she hadn’t met her grand-daughter yet. As mum and dad both have their birthdays in December, there were actually three dates we wondered if she’d last until. The whole month was full of frantic phone calls home, crying at adverts showing mothers who weren’t in intensive care, and having to answer over and over that question, ‘how is your mum doing?’

As she eventually died four days before Christmas, and we were already at home, we stayed there, and ended up Christmas shopping in my home town, where bumping into old school friends was unavoidable, and I answered every question about mums health with a chirpy, ‘oh she died yesterday’, as I hadn’t actually taken it in yet. Christmas Day itself, we had to open gifts we’d wrapped for mum and decide what to do with them, and I clearly remember taking a present into dad with a cup of tea and saying that mum had asked me to get it for him, and he tried to pay me back. 

It was the weirdest, most sad, celebration. We were all still shell-shocked, as I really think we all thought we’d be at the hospital on Christmas Day, so being in the house seemed luxurious. I can’t remember what we ate, but I remember we didn’t pull crackers. 

The point of me writing this is that me saying I’m sad in December because mum died at Christmas isn’t just because of the grief, which I feel sporadically anyway. It’s the memories. 

The whole of Christmas is so wrapped up with these memories, I find it really difficult around December, because everything is geared towards Christmas in this country. It’s all about ‘family’ and gatherings, eating and drinking, but always as a group. 

The following year, I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas, but we decided to spend it with dad because it was his first year without mum. We went down to Lincolnshire, and during a meal with my brother and sister-in-law, my dad announced he’d proposed to his new girlfriend. 

I don’t blame my dad for trying to give himself some happy memories – he lost his own mother at new year, as well as his wife at Christmas, so he’d wanted a happy occasion to think about in December instead of remembering the two rubbish ones. Much as I don’t dislike my dad’s fiancée, it was a shock, and we all spent much of Christmas drunk. 

Then five years later, I had a nervous breakdown in October, and found everything so difficult that year that I bought and wrapped all the presents in November, and wrote all my cards, in case I was ‘dead by Christmas’ myself. December is a hazy nightmare of medication swapping, and counselling appointments. One day, I sat in the bakery section of Asda and lay on the floor crying because it was too busy, surrounded by mince pies.

One other day in particular sticks out – it was the 23rd December, and at the end of it, I was given a crisis number, but was also told, in case I felt suicidal over the holidays, it was a different number as the usual one is closed. He then wished me a merry Christmas. 

This piece is all leading somewhere, I promise, and because of your patience, we’re almost there. 

December for me now, is the worst month of the year. It’s mum’s birthday to contend with first, and then all the other memories start to flood back. The way it felt waiting for someone to die, the rushing to the hospital, the sleepless nights and jumping when the phone rings. Then I start to remember how it felt a few years later, when everything made me cry, and I didn’t want to leave the house. Next, we have the anniversary of mum dying, and the grief for her being missing.

So when I feel more depressed than usual in December, how can I communicate all this to anyone who doesn’t know me well enough, or hasn’t got time to read all this? 

I say ‘my Mum died at Christmas’. It seems socially acceptable to be upset about this. It’s definitely better than ‘I find Christmas socially awkward and overwhelming’ or ‘Christmas has a wealth of bad memories and associations for me’.

I’m just not sure for how many years after her death this will be socially acceptable – then again, there won’t ever be a time I won’t miss Mum.

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