Saturday 16 December 2017

Facing Christmas without Dad: 'I can't get my heart around the fact that I will never see him again'

Arlene Harris's dad loved Christmas and always ensured it was a special time for the family. After his death earlier this year, she finds herself overcome by grief as festive traditions unfold without him

Family: writer Arlene Harris faces her first Christmas without her beloved dad Aidan O'Beirne,
Family: writer Arlene Harris faces her first Christmas without her beloved dad Aidan O'Beirne,
Writer Arlene Harris and her dad, the late Aidan O'Beirne

Arlene Harris

My Dad has always loved Christmas - the carols, the old-fashioned family movies, the gaudy decorations and of course, the turkey dinner.

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without hearing him waxing lyrical about an organic bronze hen or belting out festive songs and catching him trying to sneak some garish baubles on to my otherwise tastefully decorated tree.

In my 44 years, I have spent all but two Christmases in my Dad's company. He may have stressed us out about the precise timing of roast potatoes and it's quite likely he would have had one glass of wine too many and started ranting about world politics, but he was always there - full of life and up to mischief of some sort or other.

This year, I can hardly bear to acknowledge it, but I am facing up to a Christmas without my feisty, funny, father. Although I know in my head he won't be here, I can't get my heart around the fact that I will never see him again.

Last Christmas, he seemed a little quieter than usual but there was absolutely nothing to indicate that we would lose him forever just five months later.

He was diagnosed in March with an aggressive form of cancer and within two months he was gone - a week before his 69th birthday.

Writer Arlene Harris and her dad, the late Aidan O'Beirne
Writer Arlene Harris and her dad, the late Aidan O'Beirne

His rapid demise was heartbreaking to bear as he literally shrank before our eyes. But although my family and I were with him when he lost his battle against this horrible, horrible disease, I still can't accept that he has actually gone.

There is some part of my inner psyche, which still refuses to acknowledge it - I can't even write the D word, let alone say it, because it's as if, in doing so, the magnitude of his passing will finally become a reality.

At no time during my dad's short illness did he ever contemplate the fact that he might not recover. Four years ago my mum was diagnosed with two completely separate cancers at the same time but, fortunately after treatment and surgery, she recovered - and my dad always believed he would too.

Right until the day before we lost him, he was making plans for the future, including a big party for which had a guest list as long as his arm and another for food and entertainment.

Because this is what he liked to do - no matter what the occasion, a pen and paper had to be sought and plans made to ensure the event went smoothly. This is probably one of the reasons why he loved Christmas so much.

With childlike enthusiasm, he would write lists, organise tasks and begin gaudily decorating as soon as was decently possible. And what was most remarkable about all of this, was that nothing was done for show or to entertain hordes of visitors, everything my dad did, whether at Christmas or any other time of the year, was for us, his family.

It was the only thing that mattered to him.

Having established one of Ireland's most renowned music venues in the 1970s - The Merriman Tavern in Scariff, Co Clare - Dad spent 364 days a year working so the only time he could be sure of some peace and quiet was Christmas Day and this was why he went out of his way to ensure the date was sacred.

As a child, I loved the cosiness of the family day where nothing happened apart from playing with toys, watching TV and eating treats. As a teenager, I was less than enamoured with the confines of being cooped-up all day, but when I became a parent myself, seeing my dad soak up the excitement all over again with his grandchildren proved, once again, that nothing was more important to him than family.

His passing came like a nightmarish bolt out of the blue, so none of us really knew how to deal with it. We cried, we talked, we remembered, we honoured the date he had chosen for his party and we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that he had no pain or suffering or even any knowledge that he wasn't going to make it.

But, as I'm sure anyone who has lost someone special will testify, we were only burying the feelings which threatened to engulf us entirely if they weren't suppressed.

My two brothers and I worried about my mum who had rarely spent a day apart from her husband in 50 years, while she in turn tried to put her grief to one side as she fretted about how losing a father would affect her children.

And while over the past few months, I have encouraged my own three sons to talk about the loss of their granddad, I have tried not to become too emotional, too often, in their presence. This has been a challenge, but while I thought I was coping really well with the situation, it wasn't until we put up our Christmas tree that I really fell apart.

There have been baubles and chocolate Santas on the supermarket shelves since September and tinny carols blasting out of shop doorways since mid-November, but it took the smell of a pine tree to unleash all the memories I had been so desperately keeping under wraps.

As my youngest son excitedly set about placing decorations on the tree, it was all I could do not to break down in front of him. I couldn't bear to even be near the proceedings let alone take part, so I gave him free rein.

I'm not averse to crying in front of the boys and telling them how much I miss their granddad, but I was trying to keep the enormity of the occasion from them so Christmas would remain special in their eyes.

But last week I inadvertently clicked on to the 'German Christmas advert' and totally broke down. I don't know if it was the sight of the old man sitting there alone year after year or the fact that he didn't die, but it unleashed months of pent-up emotion which had been the cause of many a devastating nightmare.

I thought I had been okay with the arrival of Christmas and that I could deal with it the same way I have coped with every other day since May 21 - but it's just so hard.

I know there are many others who are worse off this Christmas and I know losing a parent is the natural order of life, but I am just not ready to have lost my dad. He was such a larger-than-life character, seemed totally indestructible, was irreverent and often bolshie but he was the best father anyone could have ever asked for and his absence hurts like hell.

Maybe it will get easier as time goes by and I know he wouldn't have wanted me crying over my keyboard, particularly with Christmas on the way, so while I know there will be plenty of tears over the next few weeks, I'm going to try and honour him and his love of the season by playing some festive music and putting up a few flashy baubles.

My lovely father may not be with us this year, but he will never, ever be forgotten.

I couldn't have imagined that December 2014 would be the last Christmas I would have with him - so I would encourage anyone who will have their dad (or mum) with them on Christmas Day, to cherish the moment, squabbles and all, as I would give anything to have one more day with mine.

Coping with loss at Christmas: What would they want us to do?

Christmas is a particularly difficult time for anyone who has lost a loved one.

Dr David Carey says: "To get through this difficult time it can be helpful to ask yourself a simple question: 'What would he / she want us to do this Christmas?'

"Would they want us to mourn and cry and eliminate all joy from the day's festivities? The answer is probably no - so therefore, just celebrate as best you can.

"It can be helpful to have a photograph of the beloved on display and children can even make a little card and place it near the photo. Having something on show which was once theirs can be beneficial as well and if gifts have been bought and wrapped, it's best for someone to open them. The task is to remember fondly and not with excessive sadness but if tears come then so be it - it's only human to cry.

"In the normal grieving process things get easier as time goes by. Death is the last passage of life and is unavoidable. We will heal; will stop feeling the acute pain of loss and move on to celebrate our beloved by living a good and happy life as best we can."

- Dr David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and Dean of the College of Progressive Education

Irish Independent

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