Category Archives: christmas

A Christmas Message

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There is a small hilltop village called Monagri, near Limassol in Cyprus.

Inside Monagri’s plain little church, I experienced a special silence in this sacred space.

Gazing at an ancient painting of Madonna and child, their patrician faces expressing calm serenity, as I breathed in a hint of incense from years and days past, I felt that  here I was in a truly spiritual place.

Though the painting was ornate with gold leaf, the overall simplicity of its message shone through.

There is no greater unconditional exchange of love than that which exists between mother and child. The continuum of daughters becoming mothers and their daughters in turn carrying on the blended family groups that are created line upon line is our history; it is our past, present and future.

I lit a slender tallow candle and set it amongst a few others in the simple container of sand. The flame flickered in the still air and the smoky scent drifted up my silent prayers to the ceiling and beyond.

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The silence was absolute.

Silent is an anagram of listen. 

In the silence, I listened.

In the stillness I heard … only peace.

Though it was a sunny summer’s day outside, my thoughts turned to Mary and Joseph’s December journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and I considered how challenging it must have been for them to travel blindly across unfamiliar land.

Their Satnav was the sun, moon and stars, their signposts were words of knowledge shared by others who had travelled the road before them. They did not learn through the artificiality of electronic media, they learned through word of mouth and story-telling.  All they would have heard at night was the sound of the wind and the darkness would not have been polluted by artificial light, but broken by the starry sparkle of the planets and constellations.

They completed their arduous journey just in time to bring new life into the world, calmly, without fuss and with none of the science-based trappings of medicalised birth that have become the norm, at least in the west.

It was just Mary and Joseph and the grace of God. 

The arrival of Jesus is the true miracle of Christmas, the annual reminder through the nativity story representing the basis of it all; it is all too easy to lose sight of this simplicity in the materialism that we have come to accept as being intrinsic to our Christmas.

Sometimes we need to pare down to the nub to get to the profound truth, and the message of Christmas is no exception.

It is virtually impossible for us to find silence today, with the clamour of everyday life ruling our every move.  From the electronic tones of our mobile phones to the cacophony of different tunes in every store in the shopping mall, we are constantly surrounded by man-made noise.  Our devices talk to us, our computers bleep at us, even our household appliances beep and flash lights at us.  At night, even when all the lights are out, there is a subtle hum of background noise that never seems to stop.  It often feels as though it is beyond our control.

My moment of silence in Cyprus was precious for its rarity and its ability to stop me in my tracks and connect ahead of time with the Christian message of the festive season.  Discovering the purity of that moment’s silence in that sacred space, feels to me like a Divine connection.  In birth there is joy, in life there is challenge, in loss there is the hardest trial, but love transcends everything, and the true meaning of Christmas is there for us to access if we want, and to share in the greatest love of all.

I am reminded of the start of Desiderata: Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.

 With love to all this festive season; may you seek and find your silence and your peace.

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A festive Message

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Maybe it was The First Baby Shower Ever …

 At this time of year, when we have just passed the solar nadir that is the winter solstice and our days will gradually be stretching out again, many people across the globe are preparing to celebrate the ultimate coming of light into the world, through the story of the nativity and the birth of the Saviour on Christmas Day.

Whatever your beliefs it is a pleasure to embrace the symbolism of new life that is just around the corner.

Just imagine the darkness as Mary and Joseph toiled through inhospitable land to be turned away when they sought a place to stay. Their purpose was single minded; not for them the distractions of electronics, shopping, internet and social media: they were travelling to Bethlehem to return to Joseph’s birthplace and to await the birth of their son.

We can only imagine the panic that must have set in when Mary was in the throes of labour and there was no comfortable place for the couple to rest. The contrast is immense between the arrival of Jesus in a lowly stable and the greatness that was to follow; something that makes the whole story unique.

The light, soul and spirit of the nativity as it is told every Christmas conspire together to bring us joy and optimism in the renewal and continuation of life.

And then … following the bright star of light that signalled this amazing event … three wise men turned up bringing their significant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Quite some baby shower in recognition of the arrival of the baby who would become so important to the world! Mary did indeed pass from darkness into light with the arrival of her son.

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I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.                             Learning to Walk in the Dark: Barbara Brown Taylor

I confess. I have not yet read the book. It is on my reading list. But I recently heard it being reviewed on the radio and the premise of actually needing darkness intrigued me immediately. Only by living through the extremes of darkness and light can we assimilate and respond to the whole spectrum of meaning in our lives.

A wound is followed by a blessing.

We bleed but we heal over.

We are crushed and we are downtrodden, but we are not beaten.

Moving from the impenetrable darkness of early grief into the light of living in new normality is a pivotal part of my grieving process for the loss of my own son James, with which I have lived for the past ten years.

Life contains gifts that we never anticipate, and it is on these that I plan to focus at Christmas rather than the loss of those with whom I would ideally be sharing the celebrations.

The turn of the year’s circle brings us round to Christmas again. It is our eleventh festive season without James and here we are, still standing, still living, still counting blessings for the life we now have. Our children and in turn their children provide the continuum for the future and bring us much joy.

Thank you to everyone who has read my words this year; they reflect my own opinions and musings. Thank you too for all the wonderful support and encouragement I continue to receive.

I wish you a blessedly peaceful time over the festivities.

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It’s that time of year again!

 

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Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.           Anne Roiphe

It’s that time of year again! At every turn the media exhort us to be festively jolly as though there is no grief, sickness, sadness, terrorism or poverty in the world. The images of tables laden with festive fare, the millions of pounds spent on long and complex advertising stories, the endless articles of how to drop a dress size and look great this festive season … all these conspire to make us feel woefully inadequate if we are not joining in. Should we have the temerity to admit that we are not actually greeting the season with gleeful anticipation we are seen as killjoys.

And where, in all the bombardment of consumerism and materialism surrounding the yuletide season, is the celebration of new life that is the true message of Christmas? That is far too thorny an issue to embark on pondering here, for this post is intended to be a useful survival guide for anyone living through loss at this time of year.

For the bereaved, we have to accept that Christmas does come. It continues to happen as do all the other days of the year. We have to learn to cope in the best ways that we can find. We have to formulate a new, acceptable festive season that we can enjoy to whatever degree we feel is right for us to celebrate without our loved ones to share it with us.

This will be our eleventh festive season without James. I hold close the memories of how much he loved Christmas. I honour his memory by creating and building upon a new version of Christmas that is celebratory in its own way and at a level which I, and those around me, feel comfortable.

I offer below my own survival tips for the holidays. These are a combination of my own observations and those I have gleaned over the past decade that I think are helpful.

Accept that this time of year is especially bad for grief triggers. The time for avoidance of grief is not the festive season, and if you can embrace the concept and meet it head on rather than trying to sideline it, this will make it easier

Have a plan. Whatever you decide to do for the festive break, make sure you plan so that you are not left at a loose end.

Hold your old traditions and create new ones. Blending the present and the past creates a new normality that works effectively as a grief break.

Don’t expect others to mention your loved ones. They will think it upsets you to speak of them by name. This quote by Elizabeth Edwards sums it up perfectly: If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died–you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Be kind to yourself (1). Indulge in a treat you would not normally buy and don’t feel guilty for doing so.

Be kind to yourself (2). Listen to a favourite piece of music, watch a film, go for a walk/jog/run, meditate or pray … whatever will lift your spirits. Allow yourself to take time out from the frantic festive rushing around and just be with your own thoughts.

Do something to honour your loved one’s memory, such as buying an extra Christmas tree decoration each year.

Light a candle and reflect on what the season means to you, now as opposed to before your loss. Take heart from how far you have come year on year. Give yourself permission to grieve.

Have an exit strategy for social events so that if they become too much you can leave without causing offence. For example, you can tell your hosts on arrival that it is no reflection on them if you slip away before anyone else, and you will not then feel obliged to stay longer than you wish to.

Accept that socialising is stressful and plan what you will say if you are asked about your loved ones. Rehearse beforehand. Understand that the worst thing that can happen is that you may become tearful; no-one will hold it against you.

Spend time with family and friends and reminisce; but look forward too.

Instead of making meaningless New Year’s resolutions, start a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down a daily positive thought, deed or step that you have taken.

Finally, know that you will survive. Just as others have done, so too can you. The firsts are always hard, but in time it does become easier to accept, and even enjoy, festive socialising.

We all have the ability to find peace even in the midst of grief. Look out for the signposts that point you along the way, and follow the path that is right for you.

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a festive message

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Earlier this year, I was thinking ahead, knowing that I would find a festive image when we visited Gloucester Cathedral. The nativity scene is just a small panel within one of the vast and beautiful stained glass windows which are such a wonderful feature of the Cathedral.

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The festive season:

It is not about Black Friday

It is not about Amazon deliveries

It is not about cards and gifts, or tables groaning with festive fare

It is about the amazing wheel of life that brings us round once again to the birth of a new year and another chance to figuratively start afresh; with whatever the new year may bring.

 The theme of the culmination of anticipation resulting in a birth can be symbolic of so many forms of new beginning, and new ways of living our lives. I am no Theologian and would never presume to sermonise but on a personal level, I welcome the symbolism of the nativity … though I would struggle to explain quite why. It just feels to me like a message of hope.

Light is a theme I return to frequently in my writing and I am very happy that we have just passed the winter solstice so that we are moving into the light again, with longer days bringing a renewed sense of optimism.

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When you have experienced loss, particularly the loss of a child, each turn of the year’s circle cannot be anything other than poignant, as you step into another new year without that person. In the case of a child, who should most definitely not have died before you, you have lost the chance to watch he or she grow and mature and that is a desperately sad concept … but one which you have to live. You cannot put down your burden, you have to know that you will always carry it – but, the more ‘normally’ you can begin to live your life, the easier it becomes to shoulder the burden… of course, this happens over time.

If you have had a good year, I hope that 2015 will be even better.

If you have had a bad year, I hope that 2015 will see an upturn in your fortunes.

Thank you to everyone who has given me amazing support this year, whether that is emotionally, practically, through reading my book and this blog or generally being there for me. I couldn’t have done it nearly so well without you all.

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Are you looking forward to Christmas?

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I recently heard this reflection that could easily sum up being a bereaved parent ..

“New normal is just a costume I wear because it suits my life now”

After the loss of your child, it is impossible to present yourself as the same person who you were before, simply because you no longer are that person.

That you are irrevocably changed is a given, and the acceptance of this takes time.

You may wonder, what does new normal consist of?

When does it arrive? How do you find it?

The basics of the costume arrive fairly quickly. You would be surprised to know how soon other people expect you to return ‘to normal’ after loss. This may be in part due to wishful thinking of friends and family, but it’s also due to the accelerated way we live our lives these days. The instantly gratuitous nature of the internet and social media give us new expectations of ‘getting over’ or ‘coming to terms’ with things. It is as though there should be a linear, set timescale to grief. But… just ask anyone who has lost a loved one … such a thing does not, and should not, exist.

Perhaps we need to feel the pain of grief to be able to work through it and learn how to look back down the line at it, safe in the knowledge that we are feeling less pain as time goes on and gradually learning to live life in new normality.

There is a lot to be said for the Victorian practice of wearing sober clothing and a black arm band during mourning with its own timescale, not least because it was visible to others and it gave a message to handle people gently.

Today, we do not have anything noticeable that signals to others that we are dealing with severe emotional trauma.

The costume of new normality includes a mask which is rarely removed.

There exists a sense of having to present to the world a face which accords with what is expected, rather than the real, naked expression of loss.

Part of living new normality lies in giving sensible responses to well-meaning people who ask you if you are ‘feeling better’. Early on, you may find yourself, as I did, giving non-committal, non specific responses because the truth was just simply too awful to share at the time. I felt like I was in the blackest, darkest pit of despair and I could not imagine a future in which it would ever be ‘better’. How could I inflict that on people when they were simply asking after my wellfare? I learned to be very selective with my audience.

There are some people to whom I have always been able to speak completely freely, and thank goodness for them, as saviours of my sanity!

Fairly early on I found it was important to me to reclaim my daily rituals and put on my makeup when I dressed. Whenever I was applying it I would think about how I was presenting myself for the day. I wore waterproof mascara for years ‘just in case’.

“Are you looking forward to Christmas?”

Even now, the tenth festive season since James died, this question requires a qualified answer….

“Yes, I am looking forward to Christmas.

I am looking forward to spending time with family and friends.

I am looking forward to observing our new rituals, which include lighting a candle for James at Christmas lunch, wherever it takes place.

We will raise a glass to him and to others who are absent.

So yes, I am looking forward to Christmas, but our ‘new normal’ Christmas is includes all the memories of our old rituals, and all 19 of the ‘old normal’ Christmases that were shared with James”.

My life did not end when my son died, though it felt like it at the time.

Laying down new memories, living my life with joy and anticipation when I can, is what I owe to James’ memory. In particular at Christmas and the turn of the year, it is important to look forward as well as backward to add to the memory store of new normality. I am lucky to have my loving family and friends who understand these nuances and treat me gently, never forgetting what has gone before.

Let’s not forget, the empty space at the table is hard for them, too.
The costume of new normality eventually assumes a good fit. How long that takes depends on many individual tucks, stitches and pleats. New normality can never be quite as comfortable as the old, but today I find it acceptably wearable despite my lack of choice in its design.

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