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Navigating grief during the holiday season

Last year was the first festive season without my 17-year-old son Samuel. He died by suicide on 2 September 2020 and looking back, as a family, we were still in the grip of numbness and shock post loss.

It was shortly after this, on 6 January 2021, that I lost my mum suddenly. My dad then suffered a stroke and died on 23 March. These are my reflections on my first holidays without my child – including some tips that I followed last year and will be putting into practice as I face my first Christmas without both of my parents, as well as my youngest child.

Managing the lead up to Christmas

The preparation period somehow feels more raw this year. The frivolity of Christmas songs assaults my ears at every turn while the joyous anticipation of society taunts me.

Last year, my youngest daughter Daisy made Advent calendars with a difference. Each fabric pocket contained a polaroid picture of Samuel, a supportive quote and a chocolate. It made each December day more bearable. I made a pinboard collection of the pictures – a catalogue of Samuel through his childhood – that I now look at every single day.

This year, I invested in the Suicide & Co Advent email which sends a poignant message and accompanying playlist to my inbox each morning. It has helped me feel less alone.

I really didn’t want to decorate the Christmas tree last year. It had always been a family-centred event, mainly my children watching me struggle and laughing at my lack of artistry. So my ex-partner and his daughter decorated it when I was out and it was a relief not to be involved.

I found Samuel’s childhood home-made decorations towards the back of the tree; they obviously didn’t know quite where to position them. I brought them to the front, they could take centre stage in their gluey glittery greatness!

This year, my decorations are stored in boxes following my house move. My daughter Lily sent me a miniature real tree with decorations. It's just perfect, a nod to Christmas, subtle and lights up a picture of Samuel.

Samuel tucking into our traditional Christmas Eve buffet

Do something a bit different

I took advice from others last year and decided to do something a bit different so Samuel’s absence wouldn’t feel so palpable. On Christmas Eve, we would always have a buffet of freezer food (my lack of cooking skills is legendary!). I have a photo of Samuel tucking into his share on his last Christmas with us, a huge ugly love bite on his neck slightly ruins the picture!

Last year, stuck at home, I changed the tradition to a large cheese board. Just a small change but I couldn’t face the comparison to the year before so this made a big difference for us. I did find Christmas Eve the hardest, it was a time that Samuel was always with us, engaged, laughing and with a story to tell. I felt his absence more at this time than ever before and finally grasped he wasn’t coming back.

For Christmas Day we had booked to have lunch at the local pub. Covid had other ideas though and our plans were scuppered at the last hour. All I could do was put this imposed change into perspective with what we had been through already. And luckily my son Harry and his girlfriend Zoe took on all of the last-minute cooking so I didn't have to deal with it on an already emotional day.

This year, I have just moved from London to Newcastle so Christmas will look very different once again. It will also be a lot quieter as my son Harry is spending it with his partner's family and my daughter Lily is heavily pregnant, living in Amsterdam. I will be going out for dinner on Christmas Eve and having a low-key Christmas Day pub lunch with my daughter Daisy – Covid permitting, yet again! Samuel would be delighted that I’m getting out so much!

New rituals to honour your loved one

Advice from across the grief community last year included honouring your loved one at Christmas. That’s easier said than done when Christmas brought heightened tensions and surfaces some difficult memories of the previous few years. Losing a child to suicide also means everything is forever tinged with what ifs and regret.

Not buying presents for Samuel felt so strange and even neglectful. But I found a Facebook Christmas appeal for local care leavers with an Amazon gift list. Tears ran down my face as I bought items Samuel would have loved – earbuds, North Face t-shirts, branded holdalls and underwear. This year, I have donated to Crisis Homeless Appeal in his name and it does feel like I am making a contribution to honour him which helps a little.

Christmas dinner when Samuel was growing up was a funny affair. I used to give him the choice of anything he wanted when he was younger. He always chose a…..cheese sandwich! It became the running joke in the family. Last year, I made a cheese sandwich and it took pride of place next to a candle at the dinner table. We did laugh that it was gluten-free bread which he would have moaned heavily about! This year we will add mince pies for my mum and wine gums for my dad to the tributes. We are a sweet toothed family!

Be mindful of social media

I am careful of social media and tend to keep to trusted sources. Seeing families gathered together for their Facebook and Instagram posed pictures can literally wind you.

Last year, I put up our family picture from the previous year, my four children and me, suspended in time. People were kind. This year I’ve no idea what I will do. There’s something about exposing myself to platitudes and a lack of understanding that feels risky. I think I’ll keep to my Instagram grief community and avoid triggers.

Moving into a new year

I hadn’t appreciated how the new year would impact me last year. Going into a year where Samuel didn’t exist was tough. It felt disloyal and like I was going further away from him. I’m not sure how I will feel this year, does the gulf widen and will I feel worse?

I know reflecting on this year will be tough. When we moved into 2021, we thought we would just be grieving Samuel but within days we were thrust into more unexpected loss. The loss cycle continued with both of my parents and the year has been one of huge turmoil and change.

I have recently moved 300 miles to start a new life in Newcastle so my Christmas and New Year will be incredibly different. I now also have time to reflect on the holidays we shared and appreciate what really matters.

My advice would be to strip back all the extravagance, make it about the people you love, play games, share stories, take photos and cherish each quirky tradition. These will be the memories that will sustain me this year and put a smile on my face.


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