Dave, our Bereaved Parent Support Coordinator, reflects on two very different Christmases in his family and the confusing emotions Christmas can bring.
Our first son was born just before Christmas and I can still vividly remember coming out of the maternity ward and later that day going to a Carol service.
The snow drifted gently down as tears ran down my cheeks, tears of happiness and joy. Looking at the child in the manger and hearing the familiar songs, I gave thanks for our child sleeping in the hospital and felt that life just couldn’t get any better. The Christmas lights and the nativity scene spoke of a new beginning as I began the journey of fatherhood.
Roll forward fifteen years and once again the Carol service brought me to tears, but this time they were tears of loss, tears of despair. In August, our second son had died and the whole family was still in deep grief. There was an empty space at the table, a gap where Ben’s stocking should be and as our youngest daughter described it in a poem, ‘a hole in our hearts’. The Christmas lights seemed superficial, the words of the carols meaningless and how could anyone dare to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to us – didn’t they know that we would never be happy again? How could we possibly celebrate the birth of a child when ours was no longer with us?
Family relationships are complex, and even though we had all lost the same person, each of our losses was different because our relationship with Ben was different. Parents, siblings, grandparents, friends – all of us grieved in our own way. Most of the time we were able to be kind to each other but each of us had those moments when it seemed that we were alone in our grief.
For anyone who has experienced a deep loss, events that should be joyous celebrations inevitably become bittersweet. The reason for the celebration is still there, but it’s also a reminder that someone is missing. This is true for weddings, birthdays, graduations, but somehow much more pronounced at Christmas. There is so much pressure all around us to try to create ‘the perfect Christmas’, a Christmas that doesn’t make space for sadness. Each family also builds up its own traditions and it’s hard to know in the emotional turmoil which ones to keep.
When we think about the Christmas story we can easily forget that it also has its share of darkness and grief. We’re told that after Jesus was born, King Herod ordered the murder of all the infants and toddlers. For obvious reasons, this dreadful event doesn’t make the cut in most children’s nativity plays, but it is there, and it reminds us that at the very heart of our Christmas celebrations there are bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents. For those of us who face a Christmas with that empty space at the table, perhaps it’s comforting to know that when you strip away the tinsel and fluff, there is a light shining in a dark world, a glimmer of hope for the hopeless and comfort for the bereaved. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Christmas is a confusing mix of joy and deep sadness – it always has been.
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