When I returned to Christchurch after Paul’s funeral, I stayed a few days with a friend who had three younger children. But I was too exposed and vulnerable, found being in a family atmosphere intolerably painful.
Gradually, I came to recognise what was the problem and to know that I was faced with a choice. If I decided, then and there, to shut myself off from my friends’ children, and later grandchildren, I was at the same time, amputating myself. Even a temporary shut down would gather momentum and run out of control. Consequently, I needed to grit my inner teeth and endure the pain, then, and even sometimes now, so that my life wouldn’t be abridged out of all recognition. I have been glad since that I made that decision and that friends can talk freely about their children, showing me photographs and more recently, bringing babies to see me. It has been all very poignant but very enriching.
In the same way, I have had to make a decision about Christmas. The first Christmas after Paul’s death, was a nightmare. By the second one, my father had also died. At a small get-together someone brightly wished me a Merry Christmas. My response must have annihilated her: “There are too many ghosts”. Luckily, one of my friends having overheard my comment rang me a couple of days later and said very emphatically: “HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS”.
This gave me food for thought. I could go on separating myself from Christmas in a self-pitying, histrionic way, or I could take part in the general stream of bonhomie and good will. Christmas is about a birth, a beginning. It is about the human need for hope. I was as much in need of hope as anyone else. I bought a crib, a few Christmas decorations (although I have never wanted a tree since Paul died) and each year have given and received presents and cards. I have not made my friends uncomfortable and I have once more been part of Christmas, although it still does hurt. Christmas day is often quite delightful, but no longer feels like Christmas.
A skull at the feast is all very well
but not at a Christmas barbecue.
For those of us with amputated families
Christmas is a difficult time.
Memories can console only so far.
We are forced to assume
a mask of cheerfulness
as if the black hole at the heart of us
was decorated with fairy lights,
tinsel and multi-coloured baubles.
It's altogether a game of pretend.