I was pacing the landing with my teething baby at 3am last night and all I could think of was you. As anyone who has been bereaved knows, the build up to Christmas is never easy. If you have children you try to retain the excitement, the magic, the wonder of Christmas. Yet behind the smiles, lies an anxiety, a dread, a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach that represents the gaping void left by loss. This Boxing Day marks 20 years since you were cruelly snatched from us that bitterly cold morning. Twenty years! The same length of time that you were married to my mum. I was 14, you were just 45.
When you experience a traumatic bereavement, whether as a child losing a parent or a parent losing a child, your world is irreversibly changed. The wounds are deep and the scars only partially heal. I was reminded of this only three months ago when we experienced two close family bereavements and the scars were reopened. Old memories were reignited and the full force of raw emotion came crashing down once again.
Yet there is also the possibility for reflection and growth, heightened empathy and compassion, and a greater understanding of the fragility and precious nature of life.
As I reflect on the past twenty years I feel such sadness that you never had the chance to see me graduate, get married or give birth to my two beautiful daughters. Yet I also feel thankful that your memory has inspired me to embrace life and cherish the people close to me. If you were still here I may never have felt compelled to travel on my own to the Philippines, sky dive out of an aeroplane or go hitchhiking through New Zealand (sorry for the grey hairs mum!) Equally, I may never have felt the need to tell precious family members I love them every day. One thing I have learnt is don’t wait until it’s too late. Take that holiday you’ve always been talking about, don’t wait until someone’s funeral to tell them how much they mean to you.
Just as this coming Boxing Day feels significant to me, I remember the 10 year anniversary vividly. I had just started my PhD and was running up to 80 miles a week in pursuit of a half marathon personal best. I was driven academically and athletically to try to make you proud. I was desperate to channel my emotions into something positive, and yet looking back I see that I was isolating myself in my quest to better myself.
The following ten years have taken a different path. I graduated from Exeter with my doctorate a different person to how I started. My life’s successes have become about the people in my life rather than objective achievements. Nothing gives me greater pride now than witnessing my daughters grow and develop. We celebrated my youngest rolling for the first time like she’d won the Olympics, and couldn’t hide our emotion as we watched our eldest perform in her first nativity at preschool.
On Sunday evening we went to our local church for their annual Christingle service. It was poignant on lots of levels. This was the occasion last year that I had announced my pregnancy to close friends for the first time having reached the 12 week milestone. This was also the place of my father in law’s funeral, only three months ago. As we sang carols, I glanced at my husband holding my eldest daughter. Grief and emotion were etched all over his face. I reached out for his hand and held it tightly. As I turned my gaze towards my baby, I became transfixed by the innocence and wonder in her eyes. It was no coincidence that our second born has the middle name ‘Hope’. As I looked down at her little face, bathed in candlelight, I realised that she represented hope for our family, hope for the future, hope for happiness beyond grief.
This Christmas, as people become consumed with thinking about presents and food, arrangements and organisation, I will be holding in my thoughts everyone who faces a Christmas that is different to how it once was. When you lose someone you love, you never get to a point where you stop missing them. The loss doesn’t shrink, but your world expands to accommodate the loss. New people enter your world, who never replace those lost but bring new joy and possibility. It is that hope that gives me strength, for myself and for others.
Jo also blogs at Mindful Mum