Surviving Christmas when your life has gone up in flames

Christmas was my favourite time of the year – until my family imploded a couple of years ago and I found myself facing the festive season as a sole parent.

The trauma, grief and challenges we experience after a deep loss have a way of making the memories of good-times-past unbearably painful. The days marking anniversaries and celebrations are so, so much tougher than the regular days. The contrast on those days between ‘what used to be’ and ‘what now is’ is just so stark.

Read more

Christmas had always been a golden day for our family, the best day of the year. A day with no fights or growling; just food, fun and warm fuzzies. With the end of my marriage, and my lifelong dream of a happy whole family broken beyond repair, I couldn’t shake a deep sense of failure and grief – and Christmas only heightened those emotions. I kept comparing the fullness of Christmases gone by with the emptiness of this approaching one.

How on earth would I pull off Christmas? My heart was just not in it; in fact, where my heart should have been there was just a sick lump of dread, and at times it hurt to breathe.

But I had three kids counting on me to pull Christmas out of a hat in spite of myself, so I started going through the motions, hoping that some Christmas feeling would kick in at some point… Maybe the piney scent of a real tree would trigger a rush of Christmas spirit? Maybe getting together with friends and constructing gingerbread houses like we’d done for years would help? Maybe if we watched some old favourite Christmas movies? How about a visit to the Christmas lights, or playing some Christmas music? Come on! What is wrong with me?! (If Mary Did You Know couldn’t pull me out of the Christmas doldrums, I didn’t know what would.)

Somehow I survived that first bleak Christmas and even managed – to my great surprise – to enjoy it in the end.

Here are a few things that helped.

Kind, thoughtful, generous people

In Christmases past, our family had always made it a tradition to give to others, whether it was making and delivering Christmas hampers, donating to the City Mission or scheduling random acts of kindness, but this time round I found myself on the receiving end of Christmas charity. It was humbling and overwhelming – but in a really good way. The feeling that came with being thought of, cared for and remembered? Priceless. How can I convey the lift to my spirits when a lady from a support agency turned up with a Christmas ham? The rush of gratitude when a church group came by with gift boxes for each of us. The wave of emotion when a kind friend popped by with a wrapped gift “For Mum – because Mum needs something to open on Christmas morning too”. Words cannot describe what the thoughtfulness and generosity of others meant to me that Christmas. So many acts of kindness, big and small (and too many to list here), got me through that first Christmas.

Never underestimate how powerful your acts of kindness and generosity can be at this time of the year. It means so much to be remembered.

Opening the door to others

In the midst of my struggle that first solo Christmas, my eldest son asked if a friend of his could come and stay with us and share our Christmas. His friend had no family. He’d grown up in Rwanda and had only ever experienced Christmas at an orphanage – he had never had a family Christmas. Of course I said yes. And what do you know? Opening my door to someone who had never had Christmas before helped shift my perspective. Every single thing we did was a revelation to this young man. The fact that there were presents under the tree for him blew his mind. “This is like a miracle!” he said. Watching the Nativity Story and drinking hot chocolate with peppermint stirrers on Christmas Eve. “I never knew the whole story like this!” he exclaimed. Coming to lunch with my extended family on Christmas Day and playing cards around the table. “This was so magic!” he declared. This beautiful young man had nothing to compare his first family Christmas to; it may have initially felt like not such a great Christmas for me, but for him it was all magical. Opening my home to him took the focus off myself and I discovered all over again that when you give out to others, so much more comes back to you.

Never underestimate the power of hospitality. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

Being honest and asking for help

That first solo Christmas I couldn’t fool my older kids about how much I was struggling. They could see right through my efforts to white-knuckle it through the season and sensed my lack of enthusiasm. I had no choice but to come clean and ask them for help to make Christmas special – particularly for the youngest, who was only eight years old and oblivious to my struggle. On Christmas Eve I asked for my big kids’ help and they really blew me away with how they stepped up. My daughter set the table for Christmas breakfast and added more decorations around the house so that when her little brother woke up in the morning, it looked like the elves had been. When she was in bed, my eldest son volunteered to help bring out the wrapped gifts and fill the stockings – a job usually done by both parents. It was incredibly special working with my son to put the gifts under the tree (something I had dreaded as a lonely task) and he seemed to grow a couple of inches as he filled the role of ‘man of the house’. Watching my big kids help make magic happen for their little brother filled my heart and made it sing.

Never underestimate what you have built into your children over the years. Children can surprise you with their awesomeness when you need it most.

We survived that first Christmas, and I even managed to enjoy it. It was different, sure, but it was surprisingly good.

Having survived the first solo Christmas I thought the next one would be easier. Ironically the second Christmas was so much worse. A spew-bug hit on Christmas Eve, which kept us up all night and quarantined all of Christmas Day. It went down in history as The Worst Christmas Ever, with a poor sick nine-year-old and only desserts to eat (because that was going to be my contribution to the family Christmas dinner). I couldn’t wait for that wretched day to be over, so as to consign it to the history books.

But now, as we face yet another Christmas, I can look on the bright side. The Christmas bar has been set at an all-time low after last year’s debacle, and from here the only way is up. Roll on Christmas 2018, I say.