Grief at Christmas
Fifteen years ago, two weeks before Christmas, my mother died.
She had suffered from seizures for most of our lives, after the surgeons removed a grapefruit-sized brain tumour from her precious skull. It left her with scars on her scalp and a life-long dependency on the drugs that she took to prevent the seizures. Even by the time I’d reached my 20s, I was too young to know how she felt about this, or how she viewed her ever-more-debilitated life. All I knew was that, after over a decade of taking tablets three times a day, seven days a week, she decided to stop the medication.
The seizures quickly returned. The fear had always been that she might crash the car, and then when she had to stop driving, perhaps it would be an accident on her bicycle, and when that was eventually left in the garage, we might find her in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.
In the end it was less dramatic, but no less of a shock. The seizures would sometimes come in the night and wake my dad and me, and he would stay awake until she recovered and was once more breathing steadily. One night, neither of us woke, and in the morning it was my dad waking me to tell me my mother had died. She was 61 years old.
A few nights later I went out with friends and drank tequila as if it were medicine. My friends had hugged me, wordlessly, my grief spilling onto their shoulders. They treated me tenderly but not cautiously, a tacit understanding of what I needed in that moment. Grief is so hard for people to deal with. They tiptoe around, not wanting to say the wrong thing so saying nothing at all. Some friends barely acknowledged what had happened, causing ructions in our relationship that never quite healed. Some found it difficult to have a regular conversation with me, assuming that I was too distraught to have any interest in normal life.
But that night, it was just right: in our conversations, there was an understanding that life had fundamentally changed, even though it would, of course, continue as it always had done.
By closing time I had convinced myself that it was too late to go home – my dad would certainly have locked the door. I couldn’t imagine, in my self-absorbed state of emotion, that he would be waiting up for his daughter’s return, waiting to hear my key in the lock. Why didn’t either of us pick up the phone? A colleague lent me his bed.
In the morning, wrung out from tears and alcohol I made my way home. My sister Sarah looked traumatised, saying that Dad had woken her up in exactly the same way that he had just a few nights before, to tell her I hadn’t come home. She had snapped upright, terrified that someone else had died.
The church at Mum’s memorial service was full – unsurprising for someone who had been such an integral part of the life of the church. She had been appointed a church steward when we were young, and we would go into the hallowed vestry with its precious velvets and its solid wooden table to help her put the hymn numbers in the holders that hung on the church walls. Her life as a schoolteacher made her an excellent choice as Sunday School teacher, although I hated being among her pupils, wanting her to be mine, not everyone else’s, too. She sang in the choir and sat on committees. Everyone knew her name.
One morning in that blur of days following her death, my childhood best friend’s mum had knocked on the door. “I’m so sorry, Anna,” she said as she stepped forward to embrace me. Remembering that makes me think how glad I am that we didn’t lose Mum now. There’s never a good time to die, but it would be so much harder in a time of Covid. The random knocks on the door, the church, the huddle by the graveside, the booze-filled mourning – none of that would have been permitted. Not to have the closeness of other human beings when you are at your most desperate would surely make the unbearable even more punishing.
That first year we spent Christmas Day with another family who had also suffered a loss: their daughter, just a teenager, had had an aneurism and died suddenly earlier that year. Our families were good friends and it was a relief to leave our subdued house and spend the day together, comforting each other with the implicit understanding of a shared experience. We barely even mentioned Mum and Eleanor, but they were there.
Nothing was the same again after that. Like for many people, Christmas had always been very family-oriented: a Christmas Eve visit to the parish church where we would make Mum laugh as we trilled along to the soprano lines of the carols, the traditional presents and food on the day itself, and the long drive to our grandparent’s on Boxing Day to see the huge (though steadily dwindling) extended family.
Since Mum died I have rebelled against that tradition, instead volunteering at the homeless charity Crisis, playing in the snow in the frozen north of England, wandering around foreign Christmas markets, staying in random hotels in random cities. Anywhere but home.
Mum had wanted to get married at Christmas so they could sing carols at the wedding. In the end she married my dad in the springtime, because her own mother had a spring wedding suit and didn’t want to buy another.
She didn’t get to sing carols at her wedding. Instead we sang them at her funeral.