Bedraggled but alive – my plan for surviving Christmas…

Christmas Eve 2020…

How do you pull yourself together when you’re battered, bruised and broken?

I’m sad and that’s understandable – my amazing gorgeous youngest child died two years ago. He was twenty five.

I’m allowed to be sad but it’s the other emotions that I’m not comfortable with. No matter how much I try I can’t seem to shake them off. I feel like a thick heavy fog has engulfed me and is trapping horrible thoughts and feelings inside.

Ben would understand the sadness but he wouldn’t want this! I don’t want this!

So how do I find the strength to say ‘no more’? How can I turn these destructive negative feelings around? How can I possibly find light in the midst of all this darkness? How can I get myself through another Christmas without him?

Every fibre of my being is trying to stop the clock because I’m dreading another celebration that he should be part of.

I get so much advice that isn’t helpful – I can’t keep looking for rainbows or sliver linings or blessings because although they help, they’re not a solution! However beautiful they are – they can never be a substitute for my darling boy. They don’t take the pain away though I’m very grateful for them and they do help to make it bearable.

A lovely friend made this for us for Christmas. The image on the bottom is Ben’s tattoo- he loved the sea the mountains and the rivers
(surfing snowboarding kayaking)

People say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but that isn’t true. Living with such overwhelming sadness is soul destroying. I’m not stronger.

I’m not a better person and I’ll never understand the clichés ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘things always work it for the best’ – they don’t!!

Things go wrong; bad things happen and much as we try to make sense of them – often we just can’t.

I do have better days (though I can’t yet say I’ve had a good day) but living like this is exhausting. Wearing a smile when you’re carrying around so much sadness requires supernatural effort. The pain of child loss is constant – it never lifts. I know I’ve said it before but trying to live normally when one of your children suddenly goes missing from your life is almost impossible.

I’ve literally cried for days – the build up to Christmas is brutal. I cry because missing Ben hurts so much it makes me feel sick. I cry because I miss normal – I long for the simplicity of a life without grief. I cry for the friends who are slipping away because I have nothing left to give. And I cry because I don’t want this broken incomplete person to be me. So many losses all tied up in one great big LOSS!

To accept a life I don’t want requires ginormous effort and I simply don’t have the strength.

I really want to embrace the Christian ethos of ‘giving thanks in all circumstances’ and though I still have so much to be thankful for – the loss of Ben outweighs everything.

I’m sharing all this because you might be thinking you’re the only one who feels this way – you’re the only one going crazy with grief.

Or you might have a friend who has lost a child and you’re trying to reach out – trying to understand a pain you (thankfully) don’t understand.

I know I’m showing my absolute worst side (I honestly do have some good points) in the hope that I can give myself some advice. I feel like I’m writing a personal case study – evaluating life before; life now; what happened; what helped!

There simply must be a way to ride this storm!

Writing clears my head and helps me think – so I’m hoping a plan will unfold. But right now it feels like I’ve hit a brick wall or I’m trapped inside a huge wave that is churning me over and over like a washing machine. I don’t have the energy to fight it.

It’s a standing joke in our family that when I get knocked over by one of those massive shore breaking waves I don’t fight back – I’m a lightweight and give in easily. Thankfully someone is usually on hand to help or the wave just viciously chucks me upside down on the beach –

bedraggled but alive!

At the moment I’m still trapped in the wave and everyone who can help has been ordered to stay away because of COVID. My lifelines are gone. The waves are pounding. My husband is here so I’m not totally alone but he’s fighting his own waves. He copes with his grief differently but he misses Ben just as much as I do.

I freeze every time I hear someone say ‘think of all the happy reunions we’ll have when this pandemic is over’. For those grieving the death of a child those words are like putting salt on a wound!

People tell me to think about the happy memories but sometimes memories choke me up so much I can hardly breathe. Christmases past are haunting – laughing children, gifts and noise, chatter and cooking, mess and tiredness, innocence and perfection – I feel like I’m observing someone else’s wonderful life.

And I’m angry that I’m starting to forget details – forgetting the sound of his voice or his laugh or his touch and smell. Plus memories take me right up to the horror of our last day. My last ever memory of kissing his beautiful face and touching his gorgeous hair! Of saying goodbye forever.

I’m sitting writing (and crying again) at 6am on Christmas Eve and instead of the excited anticipation of Christmas Day, all I can feel is an emptiness that is making me want to scream.

Yesterday I cried and cried and cried – all day! Friends called with gifts and I cried. They must think me so rude. I want to see people but want to hide away at the same time.

Grief is lonely – I don’t know how to behave in a way that is socially acceptable.

The scary thing is that the emptiness is filling up with ugly emotions – jealousy and anger and self pity and lethargy and brain fog. These uninvited feelings are all trying to justify themselves under the umbrella of grief.

But grief is about love and I know they’re not right – they’re not helping. I just can’t seem to shake them off.

Another suggestion is to think about those worse off than myself. I think of families who have lost their only child; those whose child was horrifically murdered; those who have watched their child lose their fight to cancer or some other vile illness; those who have lost more than one child. I could go on and on…

That helps a bit but adds guilt to the list and I cry for them too. Life is just not fair.

There is so much sadness in our world. Yet every pain and loss is personal because it’s ours. We compromise our journey when we compare it to someone else’s. We all grieve differently and we each have to find our own individual survival route.

The only good thing about all this crying is that I’m so exhausted I’ll hopefully sleep tonight.

I did!

Christmas Day evening…

So I’ve survived – bedraggled but alive!!

As always the build up was far worse than the actual day. I should know that by now!!

As a family we couldn’t face our usual Christmases after Ben died so we started a new tradition – one that is for him and about him. Ben loved the beach so we go to the beach. Those brave enough have a swim ‘for Ben’ then we cook breakfast. All things that were special to him.

This year due to Covid regulations it was actually the only place we could all see each other. We exchanged presents on the beach. We laughed we smiled we cried and we played. He was part of our day. He was right there inside our hearts (where he always is!). That’s what love does.

Some of our precious grandchildren – guaranteed to make us smile 😊

So based on my very wobbly experience (sharing thoughts and feelings that I’m not proud of) here is my list of tips to help get you (and me) through the build up to Christmas.

As you see it’s not ‘do as I do but do as I say!’ I know how hard it is when you feel like you’re simply drowning in sadness; when the darkness is closing in and you feel like you can’t do another day. I really do know something of your pain.

My top 10 tips (certainly not conclusive but a good starting point):

1. Prepare yourself and expect it to be hard – plan ahead and only accept invitations to places you feel comfortable.

2. Cry when you need to – go somewhere that you can cry (scream, howl) out loud (the car is my place) and let out all out. Bottling it up doesn’t help.

3. Keep busy – make detailed lists because brain fog will mean you can’t think clearly

4. Buy your Christmas gifts early – doing this before the Christmas rush saves you the stress of last minute shopping and spares you the Christmas atmosphere that is so painful. Have a reserve box of gifts because due to the fog you’re bound to forget even some of the obvious ones!

5. Name any horrible thoughts and feelings that creep in – talk to someone you trust about them. Don’t let them take up residence because they’re destructive.

6. Go for walks or whatever exercise you choose. I didn’t do that enough this year because lethargy took over. Be determined and force yourself even when you don’t want to! (We walked up Pen y Fan – small mountain in Wales – with family. That was one of our better days)

7. Make yourself listen to Christmas songs on the radio at home so you get used to them before you go out. The first ones are always the hardest to hear.

8. Meet up with friends who understand – support groups or other bereaved parents are good. Find your safe place. (hope and pray that friends will stick with you when you’re so overcome with sadness that your behaviour is erratic and can appear rude! True friends will forgive you)

9. Do something that brings you close to your child – something that reminds you of them. Ours is getting away in the camper van to the beach or the mountains.

10. I haven’t put this last because it’s the least important – in fact I think it’s the most important!! Let God into your suffering! I’m talking to myself here because I often block him out. I hurt so much that I close myself off to anything and anyone who can help. I read this…

‘In the actual darkest, pitch black night of the soul, there is a comfort in the weird, miraculous proximity of Jesus who loves us.

This sort of divine proximity is not in a hurry. It is not uncomfortable with grief. It also lets you fling every curse word toward the heavens because Jesus has a high tolerance for the F word.

This is real and true. We are not alone. It is all I know to tell you. It doesn’t feel like it will be enough, but somehow it is. I don’t know how it works. We are loved.

⁃ Jen Hatmaker (Author)