Chris Forbes’ family find a new closeness in the festive season after his dad died at Christmas.
The worst thing about my dad dying on the Happiest Day of the Year is that I almost resent him for it.
For ruining it for the rest of the family. Forever. How selfish, you know? I always loved Christmas but now, if I find myself starting to enjoy it, an instant wave of guilt hits me like a Coca Cola Christmas truck to the face.
I still remember walking out of the hospital on the day he died; Christmas Day 2010. It didn’t seem real. I kept glancing down at my phone in disbelief as messages were filtering through from friends who were oblivious to the situation. “Merry Christmas”, “Hope you and your family are having a great day”, “Hope Santa was good to you mate!”
Part of me wanted to respond to them in the most caustic way possible. To make them feel awful for not realising what had happened. “You get anything cool for Christmas mate?” “A death in the family, you?”
That’s always one of the most confusing things to deal with when a loved one dies. The fact that the world keeps on turning and everyone else seems to be going about their business like nothing has happened. You feel like shouting at them, “What are you doing!? Don’t you know my dad’s just died!?” But that’s just the way of it. Whilst others were tucking into their Christmas dinner, we were trying to decide who was going to call the relatives and bring their Christmas celebrations to an abrupt end.
There’s no good time to lose a member of your family.
I understand that. I certainly don’t think I’m entitled to grieve any more than anyone else who has suffered loss just because dad died on Christmas Day. But it does complicate your emotions when you lose someone on a significant date because it alters your whole perception of what it stands for. One of my best friends recently lost his mother. She passed away on his birthday. It would have been the furthest thing from his mind but my heart felt for him all the more knowing that he would never be able to enjoy his birthday in the same way again.
Christmas is so relentless. There’s no hiding from it. Decorations start going up at the start of November so every year I basically have to endure a two month long crescendo to the anniversary of his death.
The never changing soundtrack to Christmas is particularly tedious. I hear Noddy Holder screaming “It’s CHRIIIIISSSTTMAAAAS!” like a kind of morbid cockerel, signalling the start of a sickening season filled with memories of my father’s death. It’s almost as if he’s shouting “ Your DAAAAAAAAAAD’S DEEEEEEEAAAAAD.” And don’t get me started on “I wish it could be Christmas every day.”
The one song I truly connect to now is River by Joni Mitchell.
I am thankful that there is a song out there that establishes that the festive period isn’t a furiously fun filled time for everyone.
Christmas adverts are just as bad. Constantly emphasising the importance of family; spending time with family, buying gifts for your family, eating dinner with your family, playing games with your family, generally just family-ing with your family. You are surrounded by all these sounds and images promoting perfect, happy families and that’s quite difficult to endure.
And I’ve only lost my father. Others have lost a great deal more and some people never had any family to lose in the first place. Christmas, with all its insistence on togetherness, can be an incredibly lonely time for some people.
Before his untimely death, Christmas had always been a very enjoyable occasion in our house.
Every year my dad would make the same joke as he “helped” prepare dinner. “That’s the turkey stuffed and plucked, now we just need to kill it”. He didn’t get to say it that year, but, only two days before, he did recite his favourite festive limerick from the confines of his hospital bed.
T’was Christmas day in the workshop
That day of all the year
The workers they were happy
Their bellies full of beer
Then up spoke a little orphan
His face as bold as brass
I don’t like your Christmas pudding
You can stick it up your ass!
It made us all chuckle. A short escape from the grim reality.
It seemed impossible that the person making us laugh would be dead less than 48 hours later.
We always take a Christmas dinner picture. It is one of the true constants in our family.
Every year, the same pose – all of us, wearing our silly paper hats from the crackers, huddled round my dad at the top of the table halfway through our festive feast. So the following year, as we sat trying passively to “enjoy” our dinner, it was something that had to be addressed. “Do we still take the photo?” someone tentatively asked.
We silently acknowledged that Christmas had changed forever. Had Christmas died with dad? Did it mean we weren’t allowed to celebrate anymore? In the end, tradition prevailed. But it’s amazing how much you can notice someone in a picture, even if they aren’t in it.
My dad, like everyone, had his faults. But he was my father and I miss him. I miss his reluctance to get out of bed on Christmas morning until about the twentieth time of asking so we could all go down stairs and see if Santa had been. I miss him getting wired into the Bucks Fizz whilst the rest of us were just starting to unwrap our presents.
I miss buying him an unwanted tie or a pair of socks each year. I miss my friends saying “Merry Christmas” to me without a knowing, apologetic look in their eye. I miss what Christmas used to be. I miss the turkey joke. I miss my dad.
No one tells you how to grieve or how long the process will last. It’s been seven years now and all I can say is that it does get easier. We have always been a tight-knit family and, if anything, dad’s death has only brought us closer. We still exchange gifts and watch Christmas movies. We still burn the turkey and argue about the virtues of Brussel sprouts. We enjoy Christmas Day together. We laugh, we drink and we remember.
Chris Forbes is a writer, actor and comedian who has appeared in Scot Squad, Jonathan Creek and Only An Excuse, as well being a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe and on the stand-up circuit