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My dad died on Christmas Eve, six years later I’m still figuring out how to be festive

How do you celebrate a holiday that reminds you of so much grief?

24 Dec 2020

Illustration by Nadine Nour el Din

When you think of Christmas, you think of family, joy, festivities, presents and food. Family members, young and old, gathering round the fire as they watch their chosen Christmas film, most likely Home Alone. Half empty mulled wine glasses and mince pies neatly placed on the table. At least that’s what I usually see on my Instagram feed each year.

It’s what it used to be like for me, but six years ago, my father died on Christmas Eve. I still remember it like it was yesterday. Standing at the door as we exchanged our goodbyes. 

The past five Christmases have been very different to the fairytales we’re often sold. Instead of looking forward to spending this festive holiday with my family, I feel like the most traumatic event in life is on a loop.

The first three years I felt numb. The day would come and go. Most of it would be spent in bed, mindlessly flicking through shows and doing anything I could to avoid thinking about grief. Each member of my family dealt with the arrival of Christmas Eve differently.  My sister, like me, preferred solitude; never allowing anyone to help share the weight of her pain. I wasn’t really sure how my brother handled it, we never spoke about it. For my mum, it brought her comfort to be around us, she liked to watch my dad’s favourite shows and share memories. 

“The day would come and go. Most of it would be spent in bed, mindlessly flicking through shows and doing anything I could to avoid thinking about grief”

I have always felt uncomfortable sharing my grief with my family, even though they’re the only people on this earth who felt my father’s loss as deeply as I did. I wanted the grief to be my own. I would usually do my best to stay away from social media, to avoid seeing families tucking into Christmas dinner or partaking in traditional festive games. But sometimes I’d purposely go online to see exactly that, just to torture myself a little. My only coping mechanism would be to sit in sadness and feel the full weight of it by intensifying my reality.

That way I felt like my dad’s presence was still real, and my memory of him was kept alive because I was feeling something at least. What did I have without it? Only fading memories.

The last two Christmases have been a bit different. One of them, my family and I spent the day with my cousins and last year we had a family dinner. Both of these years, I’d feel a pit in my stomach every time I caught myself laughing.

I’d think: “what the fuck am I doing?” I couldn’t stand celebrating and having fun on the day of my father’s death. I’d question how my dad would feel if he could see me. Knowing him, he’d want me to be happy, but I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt. He was alone and not here, and I was enjoying myself popping Christmas crackers and having one too many glasses of wine. It didn’t feel right. The feelings of guilt still haunt me today especially as we near Christmas time. A part of me feels like if I don’t spend every Christmas feeling the loss of my father, I can’t show him that I miss him and that his death still affects every fibre of my being.

“I couldn’t stand celebrating and having fun on the day of my father’s death”

The thing about losing someone is no matter how much you try to remember them, your memories will start to fade. I’ve forgotten what it was like to feel my dad’s presence in a room, I’ve forgotten his voice, his laugh. The way we used to watch The Chase together and how we’d both pretend we would actually stand a chance at winning the game show. 

I used to have a voicemail of him on my old phone. I can’t remember exactly what it said. I’d listen to it over and over again, that is until my phone broke. Without his voicemail I felt lost. This was someone I had spent 15 years of my life with; listening to him, learning from him, loving him and I still feel bad for not even remembering what he sounded like. The feeling of emptiness I’m left with is something I’ll probably feel for the rest of my life. Some days, it feels like he never even existed – one minute he was here and the next he was gone.

People say that when you lose someone, you carry them with you, but it’s hard to keep someone alive in your mind. Especially when allowing yourself to think about them is so painful. How do you recover from that? Recover from something that will never change. The permanence of death terrifies me; it’s not like breaking up with a partner or a friend because with that, there’s usually a chance of reconciliation or even just closure. With death, there isn’t that last goodbye, there isn’t a way to get back in touch. That’s just it really. Emptiness.

“With death, there isn’t that last goodbye, there isn’t a way to get back in touch. That’s just it really”

As Christmas time nears, I’ve started to think about my annual ‘traditions’; one of these is the annual post I share on my Instagram commemorating my dad on his anniversary. I’ve always felt quite weird about it, is grief really something that should be publicised on social media? I guess it depends on the person. When I used to share it, I’d always ask myself, “who is that for?” I used to tell myself it was for me, because I had no other method of communication with my dad. So I used this digital space to tell him and 900 other people on my page that I miss him and I’m thinking about him.

Recently, I’ve realised it was never for him, or for me for that matter. It was for everyone else – I wanted people to know I was grieving, I didn’t want to be the only one who knew it was the day of my dad’s death. I’d usually get an influx of ‘thinking of you’ messages after the post, but these felt like empty words. How could these people understand the pain I was feeling? Were they really thinking of me or did they just feel guilty for thinking about their impending Christmas dinner?

Yet if I didn’t receive messages from certain people, I’d get offended. I felt like the entire world owed me something to compensate for the pain I was in. I hated how these posts became a yearly routine for me, sometimes I’d share them without even feeling anything about my dad. Connecting to my emotions that surround my dad’s death is something I still find extremely difficult.

“There will be some Christmases when I’ll just want to stay in bed and stare at the four walls of my bedroom, but there will also be some that will be filled with joy too”

After a while, I decided to stop going on Instagram altogether. I felt like sharing every little feeling I had on social media was too intimate. It stopped sitting right with me. Now I opt for Notes, Word or sometimes I’ll write my feelings out on paper. I still struggle to come to terms with and express how I feel about my dad’s death and broadcasting it on a platform full of people I don’t share an emotional connection with no longer works for me.

This year, it’s different. For many families, Christmas Eve won’t look like it usually does. A part of me thinks that this will make it easier to enjoy myself, after the year we’ve had. I can’t say I won’t feel the coldness of grief, but this year I’m not going to let it consume me. I plan to have a Christmas dinner with my friends. I plan to laugh, to drink and to allow myself to be happy. 

This day will be forever tainted by my father’s death. There will be some Christmases when I’ll just want to stay in bed and stare at the four walls of my bedroom, but there will also be some that will be filled with joy too. Grief isn’t something you can schedule. What I’ve learned is acceptance. To accept the guilt I feel, to accept that spending Christmas with my family hurts at times and to accept that I also want to celebrate Christmas again.