Six months ago, a good friend asked me how I’d be spending Christmas. The question surprised me – it was still summer, after all. I told him I’d “probably just go to my parents’ house”, and as soon as I had, I realised what he’d meant: he lost both of his parents a few years ago.
Every year, he has to come up with something to do during the festive period – and, he explained, his anxiety about how to spend the time starts way before Mariah Carey is blasting out of every radio. This year, he’s spending Christmas at my house – but he’s not the only one who’s forced to muddle through the “season of joy” with a sense of dread.
While Christmas will be difficult for many of us this year, thanks to COVID, there are some for whom the period is a challenge every year. I wanted to learn about how others who have lost their parents have come to cope with the holiday season. Here are some of their stories.
Marleen - Photo by Lin Woldendorp for VICE
My mum died eight years ago, on the 9th of December, and my dad died on the 7th of November, 2018. They both died of cancer, during the darkest days of the year. Right after they passed, I went into survival mode. But now I truly feel the loss.
Most people count the days until Christmas; I count the days until it’s over. Nobody teaches you how to celebrate the holidays without your parents. When they were still around, we would go all out with our own special traditions. We dressed up in glittery outfits, watched bad movies, made hot chocolate and played Risk until the early hours. But when my mum died, our holiday traditions died with her. We tried to look for new ones, but they were never as fun as before. And then dad went too.
Two weeks after he passed, I was bombarded with “fun” Christmas commercials, and heard friends complain about how they had to go home to see their family. I kept thinking: ‘If only I could still be annoyed by my mum freaking out over Christmas dinner.’ The time leading up to Christmas Day is the worst, because people are so wrapped up in themselves, their families and their busy schedules.
That first Christmas without my parents, I felt like a zombie. My body was ill with grief. I went to dinner with friends, but I barely registered what was being said. My head was somewhere else and I could barely take a bite. I tried to have a good time, but it felt like I was acting. All I really wanted to do was sit on the sofa with a cup of tea and talk about the people I missed.
So, the holidays are not jolly for me. I don’t want to talk about my dead parents while everyone else is so cheerful. I get up, put my Christmas outfit on and try to get through the day. Most of my friends didn’t even bring it up last year. I don’t blame them – I wouldn’t know what to do either. Some people did reach out via text, with things like, “What a weird day, I’m thinking of you.” That’s sweet; it’s nice to know people are thinking of me.
This year, I’m spending the holidays with friends and my in-laws. It’s nice, but I still feel like an outsider. I used to assign a lot of meaning to Christmas with my family, but that meaning has shifted. My friends are my family now.
Emma - Photo by Lin Woldendorp for VICE
By the age of 22, I’d lost both of my parents. My mum died in 2015, and my dad in 2016 – both of cancer. I remember not wanting to tell anyone about it, because it sounded so surreal.
We used to have intimate Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Day we’d go see my aunt, and the day after we went to my uncle. After my parents passed away, I thought: ‘Do I have to continue honouring this tradition?’ But it felt like I owed it to my parents to keep it up.
That first Christmas without them, my uncle threw a big dinner party. Everyone seemed to be having fun: partying, drinking and eating – but I felt completely out of place and hated being there. When my uncle said that we were with 25 people, I counted everyone and said: “No, we’re 23… 25 minus mum and dad.” He pretended not to hear me; I think it was too painful for him.
My birthday is right before Christmas. That is the day I miss my parents the most, because I can’t celebrate my life without the people who gave it to me. I feel the loss so profoundly that Christmas Day doesn’t feel too bad in comparison. Then, I mostly miss the spiced stewed pears my mum used to make, going for wintry walks and putting up the tree together. We always had the same fake tree, covered with an eclectic collection of decorations from over the years. I take comfort in the fact that I still have that same tree. On top of the tree sits a little bird – mum really loved birds.
I’ve spent Christmas Eve by myself once or twice, but most of the time my friends will invite me to join them and their families. They make sure I’m not alone. It’s really nice, but it’s still difficult to face the fact that I’m there by myself – I’m the odd one out.
This year, my brother and I are going for dinner at my aunt’s house. Her daughter’s husband once remarked that, “Christmas must be very tough for us.” It felt good to hear, like my parents weren’t being forgotten and are still missed. People should feel free to ask questions about the loved ones we’ve lost. I like talking about them; it makes them come alive again, just for a moment.
Emma - Photo by Lin Woldendorp voor VICE
I try to make the best of it when Christmas rolls around. I put on a shiny dress and lipstick, and indulge in lots of wine and cheese. I try not to look at the holidays as a sad time of the year, but they still are, and I feel very lonely at times. Most of all, I miss having a family home full of my childhood stuff, where my parents would tell stories about past Christmases
I was 22 when my dad died of a cardiac arrest, and my mum died from suicide two years ago. When I hear people complain about not looking forward to Christmas, I think to myself: ‘Enjoy it, you never know how life will turn out.’
My first Christmas without them was extremely difficult. My relationship of seven years had just ended, so I’d lost everything: my parents, my in-laws and my boyfriend. Thankfully, I had a best friend from high school who invited me to spend Christmas with her family. When I found out that her mum had bought me presents, I burst into tears; I hadn’t expected that anyone would ever do that for me again. My friend said, “You’re one of us, Em.” I was moved by that; I’d missed feeling like I belonged.
Offering to host someone for dinner on Christmas Eve, or even just sending a text, makes a big difference. I remember someone texted me saying, “Hey Em, I’m sure this is a tough time for you, I’m thinking of you.” That really made me feel supported.
I usually spend the days after Christmas Eve with my brother and sister. When my mum died, my sister had just discovered she was pregnant. So she spent the first Christmas without our parents with a six-week-old baby. I think that was especially difficult for her. We assured each other: “We’ll see what happens, let’s just make sure we’re together.” My brother wore his pyjamas, and I wore my shiny dress. I’m still proud of how we handled it that year, just the three of us. I try to be grateful for the things I do have.