Saturday 18 January 2020

The most wonderful time of the year? Four women on how they cope with loss at Christmas

While this time of year can be filled with good cheer and the warmest of feelings, Christmas can be the opposite of joyful if you're grieving. Liadan Hynes spoke to four women on how they cope with awful loss at such a fragile time

Kate Gunn. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Kate Gunn. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Anne Rabbitte on her first day as a TD in 2016, with her children Fiachra, Aoibhinn and Caoimhe Callan. Photo: Tom Burke
Sarah Tobin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Geoff and Sinead Hingston

Liadan Hynes

Being sad at Christmas is the worst. Being sad anytime is bad, obviously. But there's something so in your face about Christmas joy. So ram-it-down-your-throat, look at us, off our heads on party season cheer, that can feel like a slap in the face if you're having a difficult time.

If you're having a difficult time, the rest of the year you can quietly tuck your tail between your legs and hibernate, tell yourself this will eventually pass, and you will feel better. But there's something about feeling down at Christmas that can make a person feel as if they are failing at life.

I am a hardcore lover of Christmas. A person who begins watching Christmas movies in September, who relishes the challenge to stage a meet-up with every single friend between now and December 24. But a few years ago my marriage fell apart. And when you're going through a divorce, or have suffered any kind of loss, Christmas can feel like a never-ending ad for celebrating 2.4 domesticity and familial bliss.

I found it helpful to build new traditions. If you are going through a divorce, you might get to hang on to some of the old ways, but either way you go ahead and create new ones.

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Kate Gunn

Kate Gunn, a journalist and head of social at the Every Mum website, separated from her husband Kristian nearly six years ago. They have three children.

"Initially you're not really sure what's the best way to do it, and there's the fear of the unknown," she says of figuring out Christmas as co-parents rather than a married couple.

The author of Untying the Knot: How to Consciously Uncouple in the Real World, goes on, "Like everything else, we thought about what the kids would want... Kristian still comes and spends Christmas Eve at my house, and we spend Christmas Day together. It was really important to us to have the morning with Santa as normal; nobody wanted to miss out on that."

Kate advises not becoming crushed by the weight of expectation. "I think we can get very caught up in 'this is the way it's always been and therefore it has to be that way or something's broken'." Instead, she advises looking to the future. "You just build new Christmas traditions."

Anne Rabbitte

Anne Rabbitte on her first day as a TD in 2016, with her children Fiachra, Aoibhinn and Caoimhe Callan. Photo: Tom Burke

Anne's husband Paddy Callan passed away in February 2011. At the time the couple's three children were 6, 8 and 10.

She is TD for Galway East and Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Children and Youth Affairs "That first Christmas; I'll never forget it," Anne says now. "Paddy always cooked, so facing into Christmas, where it's all about food, was incredibly difficult." The previous Christmas Paddy's family had come home from abroad to host Christmas at their house in Ireland.

In 2011, they returned for a second year to help Anne and her children get through the day. "They hadn't planned on it but... came home to cook the dinner for me really, to be honest." On Christmas Eve a friend rang to see how Anne was getting on, suggesting she come to midnight Mass, where her friend was singing.

"I went, and I sat in the gallery in the very back row, behind the choir, and I cried for an hour and a half. It was the best therapy ever. Nobody looked at me, nobody judged me, nobody could hear me or see me... I had got a release."

When they arrived at the house for Christmas dinner everything hit Anne with a bang again, she recalls. "I thought 'I can't be here'." She made her excuses, pretended she had forgotten something at home, and left. "I drove back to my own house, and sat for another four hours where I cried and cried and cried, because I couldn't let the face down in front of the kids."

Anne and Paddy's wedding anniversary is December 28. She decided that first Christmas to start a new tradition for how she would spend that day. "I asked my in-laws to mind the children for a couple of hours, and I headed off shopping. I bought an expensive pair of boots. And since then I go shopping every year on the 28th. It's always shoes I buy... it's like a new beginning, the shoes."

Sinead Hingston

Geoff and Sinead Hingston

Sinead Hingston was 19 weeks pregnant when her husband Geoff died while the couple were on holiday. Christmas was always an important time for them. "I got engaged on December 16, the following year we got married on December 27," Sinead recalls now. By March, Sinead was pregnant, due on Christmas Eve. When Geoff first died, Sinead says her main focus was just taking each day at a time. Lily her daughter, who has just turned eight, arrived two weeks early, on December 11.

"I was just miserable," Sinead says now. "My mother was amazing at allowing me to feel, but then being like 'OK, it's time to pick it up now. Let's go for a walk, or a coffee, or something to distract you'." Of getting through a Christmas in grief, she says trying not to isolate yourself is a start.

"I needed to be surrounded by people. I might have been the quietest person in the room, but there was something comforting about not being alone."

Just like Anne, she bought shoes. "I bought myself an extremely expensive pair of Ugg boots. I thought Geoff would have wanted me to have them; to me that was my present from him for Christmas. It's little moments of self-care; putting them on and feeling them warm on my feet and thinking he would have been proud of me for doing that."

Sinead, who works in finance, has since remarried to Michael, and had a second child, a son, says of grieving: "You don't have to do anything; do what you think is right."

Sarah Tobin

Sarah Tobin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sarah lost her daughter Alice five days after her birth, in 2014.

She is an EFT practitioner and is the founder of Tapping for Mums

"Christmas Day was Alice's first month's anniversary. Despite my husband Dave and close family really trying to support me through it, it honestly was a really awful day. Everyone was so kind and supportive and tried to take our minds off it - but for a large part of the day I wished I could sneak upstairs to bed with a bottle of gin and a movie."

Sarah recalls how she struggled to talk about how she was feeling.

"I was afraid it wouldn't stop, and I didn't want to upset everyone. I hadn't found Tapping/Emotional Freedom Technique at this point yet so I was still in the really raw stages of grief." Coping with loss at Christmas is just different, Sarah points out.

"Christmas really triggers us and reminds us of what we are missing. Listen to your gut instinct, try and do what you really want to do. It really is OK to say no. Give yourself heaps of self-compassion."

Sarah recommends upping your usual self-care regime. "Make it a priority. Do what you would normally do to make yourself happy, but maybe add a few extra treats for yourself as well... When you're feeling sad, it's often tempting to cut off from those around you. Just tell them what you are planning to do to prioritise you," Sarah suggests.

"It will help them not take anything personally and you can also get an ally in your corner. Sometimes it's nice to take it slow, to keep close family close and say no where you can."

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