I thought Christmas had to be merry so tried to hide my grief – I was wrong

For the first two Christmasses after my dad died of cancer in the summer of 2020, I was determined to be happy.

I made an extra effort with presents for everyone, I insisted we all dress up, I tried different recipes for Christmas dinner, created fancy new cocktails, curated the perfect playlist to keep the vibe relentlessly jolly.

It was a coping mechanism. I needed Christmas Day to be normal. I needed Christmas to be happy. I needed it desperately.

At times, it felt as though my survival through this roiling, turbulent landscape of grief was dependent on a Merry Christmas.

The effort of doggedly pushing this enforced seasonal cheer took a toll, and after the festive period I experienced a kind of sorrow hangover, feeling drained, exhausted and tearful for weeks.

In the years since losing Dad, I have realised there is no hiding from grief, there is no avoiding it or fixing it – there is only delaying it.

Now, as I enter my third festive period without Dad, I’m finally realising it’s OK to be sad at Christmas – and actually, I want to be.

Bereavement piles loss on top of loss. You lose someone you love, and you lose a million other things in the process. These losses compound, they become a teetering pile, threatening to crush you with the weight of them.

You lose parts of yourself, hopes for the future, unmade memories. You lose routines and special days that are irrevocably changed.

Christmas was one of those days, and I clung to it for two years, even as it shifted and changed and slipped through my fingers. I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t face another little loss.

My parents broke up when I was young, but we were still a family unit when it mattered, and we spent almost every Christmas Day together, the four of us.

Christmas morning used to mean waiting by the window, desperate for Dad’s car to pull up so my sister and I could start opening presents.

He would always have tubes of Smarties and Milky Bar Buttons.

His only other job was to bring the crackers, and every year without fail he would forget them.

Christmas is a time that is built on routine and tradition. Most families have their own little unique schedules that they stick to like clockwork – from watching a certain festive film every Christmas Eve, to hanging stockings in the same place, or the post-lunch walking route past the same local landmarks.

So, to grapple with loss during this time is a painful dislocation, an unmooring that spins you into a jarring new reality, with nothing familiar to grab hold of.

This is coupled with the intense pressure to be ‘merry and bright’. It is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, after all.

That doesn’t leave a lot of space for grief… or really any emotion that exists outside the remit of ‘joy’.

Perfect, whole, happy families are everywhere you turn – from TV ads to Christmas cards – and for those who recently had their realities blown apart by loss, the excessive cultural focus on family, home, togetherness, can feel torturous.

It’s no wonder that so many people struggle at this time of year. Research from earlier this month conducted by YouGov on behalf of Co-op Funeralcare, revealed that 13million adults who are battling grief following a recent bereavement are experiencing feelings of loneliness, or dealing with challenges to their mental wellbeing this Christmas.

I sought refuge in the aggressive, mandated jollity of Christmas. I thought it was keeping me afloat, but the reality is that it was sinking me. Plastering a smile over my pain, dressing it up with tinsel and twinkly lights, was hindering, not helping.

Pretending your grief doesn’t exist can make your pain manifest in unhelpful and unhealthy ways.

Christmas is sad now. There’s an empty seat at the table like a gaping wound. There aren’t enough presents under the tree. Mum always remembers the crackers.

It’s OK that it’s sad. It’s a relief to finally admit that. It’s supposed to be sad. Dad is gone and we miss him. We miss him every day, so what is the point of pretending that we don’t, pretending that our hearts aren’t broken, just because it’s Christmas?

Letting the sadness in, rather than running from it, is helping. It feels almost soothing to acknowledge it, to allow those moments of pain to arise when they need to, rather than pushing them down into some dark crevice to deal with in January.

Yes, I’m probably going to cry at some point on Christmas Day. Then, when we’ve let it out, we’ll open some presents, eat some roast potatoes, and pop some champagne.

Sadness doesn’t ruin the day, but it is now an inextricable part of it. Grieving is learning to live with that sadness, and remembering that joy can still happen around it.

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