Written by Leanne Pettigrew: Navigating love and loss during the holidays

The Christmas season is upon us. A time for celebration with family and friends, a time of joy and happiness. My email box is full of perfect gift suggestions, and my social media is in overdrive showing perfect families and how they are going to celebrate their perfect Christmas.

I have always loved Christmas, and I still do! I get into the Christmas swing early - my home looks very festive, and my Christmas tree has been up for most of November! I love the busyness that happens every December catching up with my friends, oh and I love buying presents!

Though, if I do say so myself, I’m a pretty good actress when it comes to hiding my true feelings because the month of December holds a rollercoaster of emotions for me. As Christmas rolls around with all its happiness, so does the 19th of December - Ian’s anniversary - and along comes all the sadness of missing him. I often find myself lost in my memories of him. Tears come easy, and the grief that I’m usually in control of comes bubbling to the surface. I see the sadness in my children’s eyes, and I know our friends miss him too. Sometimes, I let my mind wander pretending what Christmas would look like if he hadn’t died. He would have been smitten with his grandchildren and I imagine him building Lego with Michael, reading a story with Ella, and kicking the ball with Henry. Oh, and this year he’d have little Luka to love as well…. although I don’t want my grief to ruin the present but some days, even with the best of intentions to keep control of my grief, I fail ... .and that’s ok.

Sadly, I’m not alone when it comes to losing a loved one at Christmas time. And for many families, there will be an empty chair at the family Christmas table this year. Whether this Christmas is a first without your loved one, or many Christmases have come and gone, grief never truly leaves us – and nor should it. I loved Ian, and no matter how many years it has been since he left this world, I will always miss him and grieve for him… that is what happens when you love someone.

Over these past years some people seemed unsure of what to say to me on Ian’s anniversary; they wanted me to know they too remembered and missed him, but they didn’t want to upset me. I never needed long “deep and meaningful” conversations because sometimes I just didn’t want to share my innermost feelings. If you are wondering what you can say to someone who is grieving this Christmas, I think the best advice I can give is to acknowledge that you remember. Maybe a simple text that says you’re thinking of them…or even a heart emoji will convey the same sentiment….or a thoughtful Christmas card. One of the kindest texts that made me feel so cared for was from a good friend who sent me a photo of Ian and me. It was taken years before, but I had never seen it and it was just so special as it was a new memory that I could cherish.

I think it is better not to ask how they are going – they’re more than likely not doing well but feel they can’t answer honestly because that is not what most people want to hear.

Are you okay, they ask?

I respond as quickly as I can so they will not notice….

the earthquakes in my voice, or the tsunamis in my eyes, or the drought in my heart.

(Ellen Everette)

For many of us, wishing people a “Merry Christmas” is an automatic response and yet, when someone is grieving, their Christmas will be anything but merry. If you are wondering what you can say when “Merry Christmas” just isn’t appropriate I find it best to simply say “I hope your Christmas is as lovely as it can be, and full of good memories”.