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Coping with grief: “How I’ve learned to deal with grief at Christmas”

Coping with grief can be difficult, especially during the Christmas period. Here, author Poorna Bell shares her story, and offers her advice for anyone dealing with grief and loss this festive period.

The way I view grief is that it is love without an anchor. In the beginning, when that bond has been severed, you are directionless, and everything seems lost at sea. At least that’s how I felt in the first year after my husband Rob passed away, back in 2015.

Rob’s death was a shock, but I don’t know that the manner of death ever makes the ‘firsts’ any easier.

That’s grief-speak for all of the first anniversaries, from your birthday to theirs, wedding days, any day that held significance. Christmas is definitely one of them, because it’s so polarising in its expectation of Having The Best Time Ever when your life doesn’t match up to any of the sparkle or joy.

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When the first Christmas approached, I remember thinking: “I am never, ever celebrating Christmas again. There will never be a tree in my house. I’m not buying presents because I feel like sawdust inside.” 

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Coping with grief at Christmas: Poorna and her husband celebrating Christmas.

Although my family is Hindu, and Rob was from a Catholic family back in New Zealand, Christmas was about the secular enjoyment of limitless Baileys and cramming the maximum number of mince pies into your mouth. I loved it. We would traditionally go to our friend George’s for a Sicilian supper on Christmas Eve, and the next day, we’d drive down to my parents in Kent, where Rob would cook dinner.

Afterwards, we’d take our dog Daisy for a walk, and we’d always watch the Christmas special of Doctor Who. The absence of these tiny rituals broke me, in that first year. I came across a box of our Christmas decorations and my breath stopped. Each and every one of those fragile little baubles represented a memory of decorating the tree together. What looked like cheap glass was now a limited edition of the rarest kind.

Coping with grief at Christmas:
Coping with grief at Christmas: “I came across a box of our Christmas decorations and my breath stopped. Each and every one of those fragile little baubles represented a memory of decorating the tree together.”

Christmas had always been a family affair, but after he died, I knew I couldn’t spend that first one at my parents’ house. Instead, we went away to India, where my parents have an apartment. There was no tree, no Christmas ads, no awkward questions. On the day itself, we spent it just the three of us.

It was almost as if it was just another day – it was hot and sunny and we went out for beer. There were no presents and in the evening, none of us were really hungry, so Mum just grilled a batch of sausages.

By the end of it, the day had passed, and I had survived another first. The following year was marginally easier, so we decided to spend it in Kent. But it just wasn’t the same. It was a lesson in not trying to do everything ‘as normal’ because nothing about it is normal, and won’t be for a while.

I felt like an observer, a bystander. I had to tell my mum I couldn’t have endless conversations about what food we were going to eat because I just didn’t care. I don’t know how they found the day, but for me, it was soaked in grief. Every part of it was filled with the noise of his absence. 

Last year, I decided to go to New Zealand where Rob is buried, and I visited his grave on Christmas day. It felt like the most normal thing to do.

This year will be my fourth Christmas without him, spent again in my parents’ house, but something huge has shifted. Maybe it’s because time is a healer, or that I went travelling for eight months and let go of some of my grief, but I’ve fallen back in love with Christmas. I’m getting a tree for my flat. We’re doing presents. I’m even cooking on one of the days. Once upon a time, this seemed impossible.

My grief has taught me a lot about myself, but above all, it has taught me how to navigate life when it seems like I don’t fit in. It has also shown me how important it is to look after myself at this time of year. Christmas is a time of giving, and kindness to other humans, but that principle absolutely also applies to yourself.

poorna bell husband rob engagement
Coping with grief at Christmas: A photo of Poorna and Rob from their engagement shoot.

The most helpful thing I read around grief and Christmas was that you have to do what you feel like doing. More often than not, it’s not advised to keep doing Christmas as you normally would’ve done – especially in the beginning. But you should also be mindful of not cloistering yourself away. It’s a time when things from shops to workplaces literally shut down, so that intensifies feelings of isolation.

I also started wielding the word ‘no’ a lot more. Other people who aren’t in the ground zero of your grief won’t understand why certain things are hard for you. For instance, that first year, I couldn’t even conceive of buying presents for people. You aren’t being stingy – it’s hard to celebrate anything when your world has been blown apart.

It’s also helpful to remember that it won’t always feel like this, that there will be a point when you feel better about Christmas. At the very least, you will figure out what you want. Do you want the routine of rituals every year, or would you rather keep your options open? I absolutely am in the latter. 

lonely christmas
Coping with grief at Christmas: "The most helpful thing I read around grief and Christmas was that you have to do what you feel like doing”

Family have the best of intentions but even when you’re surrounded in a room of them, you can still feel utterly alone. I found working in time to take a breath helped release some of the anxiety I felt. Every Christmas morning, I go for a winter’s run, and on Boxing Day, I’ll ask my mum to take me shopping so we aren’t all cooped up at home for days on end.

Remembrance is also necessary and vital. People may not want to discuss your grief at the Christmas table, but work out what’s right for you. Is it placing a little mince pie by their photograph? Lighting a candle to say hello, I love you?

Whatever it is – this is a time to create your own rituals that heal, nurture and comfort you. And I promise you, it gets easier. 

This feature was originally published in December 2018

Poorna Bell is author of Chase The Rainbow, a memoir of her life with Rob, and afterwards. £8.99, Simon & Schuster

Images: courtesy of author/KTB Wedding Photography/Unsplash

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