Gaby Soutar: National Grief Awareness Week: Christmas is the hardest time, when you've lost someone special

The festive season stirs all sorts of emotions: Gloom, joy, anxiety, anger, contentment – and grief

My dad died at the height of summer in 2018. It was a sweltering day, and it felt like a very strange season to lose somebody. Usually only good things happen when the sun is shining.

Strangely, though, it’s this time of year when I think of him most. That’s as well as other family members, like my late mother-in-law, who have passed on in recent years. I think it’s the same for most people. We all irrationally wonder what we’ll buy them all for Christmas.

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That may be why National Grief Awareness Week, which is organised by the Good Grief Trust, runs until December 8.

It seems very appropriately timed. So much so, we’ll forgive them for not thinking about Scottish politics when they came up with their hashtag #BetterTogether. I think that slogan may already be taken. Still, dubious social media decisions aside, the sentiment is there.

After all, as we get into the thick of the festive season, there is the Proustian excitement, but it also feels like someone’s taken a great big candy cane and stirred up the other latent emotions. What will rise to the surface this time?

It could be gloom, joy, anxiety, anger or contentment, to make up the whole selection box. I suppose the grief bit could be compared to the Cadbury Fudge addition, in that it’s persistent and unwanted.

Then there is the added pressure of having to pretend you’re as jolly as Buddy in Elf. My face hurts from smiling. That’s trickiest thing for those who are in the acute phase of loss, when difficult feelings are constant.

I remember someone once saying that grief doesn’t get smaller over time, but other stuff grows around it. I suppose that’s pretty accurate, in my experience. Once you’re further along the line, it can feel as if it’s generally under control, but those thoughts do tend to resurface about now.

They’re not as powerful as they used to be, but they still hurt. It’s a bit like you’ve been punctured by a tiny arrow. You’ll be halfway through merrily draping tinsel across the Christmas tree, and there will be a “bop”, followed by a weight in your throat.

It’s a universal experience, and this special week was launched to raise awareness, but also to signpost services that may help. According to their online map, there are more than 900 charities in the UK which offer support, whether you’ve lost a child, parent, grandparent or friend.

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Who knew? I certainly didn’t, and maybe more of us should be taking advantage of these important services.

The campaign also encourages us to normalise talking about grief. It shouldn’t be a taboo subject, and it’s not contagious.

I’m thankful that I don’t remember anyone trying to avoid me, after dad died. They were all very supportive and kind.

Mind you, there were a couple of dud reactions that stuck with me. Interestingly, they’re now ex-pals, and we ended up drifting apart for other reasons. There was an, “oh well, he was quite old”, which stung, and a flippant “been there, done that”.

I try not to hold grudges, but you’re so hyper-sensitive in those moments that every attempt to minimise your loss is seared into your memory bank.

I’ve been on the other side of it, too. When my husband’s dad died of cancer, over two decades ago now, I struggled to say the right thing. All the words seemed so feeble. This wasn’t the only time that I’ve felt paralysed and have ended up saying nothing, because I was worried about getting it wrong. “I’m so sorry” feels trite, but it’s definitely better than my cowardly silence.

When I was newly bereaved, I just wanted to talk about what had happened all the time, so I could make sense of it. Thankfully, I had a couple of pals who would offer an ear. We would just walk and talk. It must be much harder, when you have nobody close to offload to. Especially as, in the earlier phases of grief, you can feel entirely alone.

There are the sensations of disassociation, confusion, and anger, as well as the sadness. You feel as if your heart is outside your body. They come to you in dreams, and sometimes seem within touching distance. I also felt strangely brazen, like I could face anything. I almost wished that I was in the Victorian era, so I could express the switch in consciousness by wearing a long black frock.

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It’s only later that you discover that everyone else experiences similar sensations. A bit like death itself, grief is a process and an integral part of life.

Now, I am in a strange phase where, apart from in this column, I don’t like talking about dad. I’ve put the lid on. If anyone mentions him, I will swiftly change the subject. I don’t feel like reminiscing. My husband gave me a framed photo of him a while ago, and I put it in a cupboard.

Perhaps that’s not healthy. Also, because of my current feelings, I have made vast assumptions about everyone else. Thus, prompted by the campaign, I asked my husband if he actually wanted to talk about his late mum. I don’t want to upset him, so I avoid mentioning the brilliant Sheena, her raucous laugh and the massive piles of gifts she’d get us from TK Maxx. He says he does. It makes him sad, but he still wants to remember her.

It may be nearly Christmas, but you can’t be like Buddy all the time.



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