Oh, how I used to love a big, sparkly Christmas! All of us together, the decorations, carols playing, and food prepared – the excitement, the hugs, the smiles, the presents placed under the Christmas tree. We would sing, feast, and afterward sit snuggly for hours.
But then it stopped, extinguished as if it had never existed.
With the death of my son, I lost Christmas. And consequently, so too did my surviving teenaged children.
I know of many loss parents who try hard to keep the Christmas spirit alive for the sake of their loved ones, especially if they have young children. Often, those around them don’t realize just how much of an effort it takes to show up and be festive.
It’s a tough balancing act keeping the smiles and roast turkey warm whilst containing the very thing that threatens to ruin the day, and I admire them greatly.
For me, the idea of hosting a traditional Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinner was out of the question. Alex was murdered a few days after Christmas and we were officially notified 48 hours later, so the holidays became an excruciatingly painful event. There was no let-up, no fissure through which the festive mood could penetrate the darkness. My mind gagged on images of his final moments; his last heartbeats pounded my brain.
I could barely make it through the hours, let alone pretend that I found joy in Christmas. My eldest boy was dead — what was there to celebrate? My life lay smashed in a million pieces like a shattered bauble that would never mend.
So, the tree went, along with the decorations and the presents, and with them any attempt to rejoice in Jesus’ birth or the New Year.
The first years clawed by and all-encompassing melancholia settled over the festive season. A nauseating numbness crushed all sense of fun. Around me people wished each other cheer, the Christmas lights burned bright and shops were clad with jingle bells and bows.
Yet my broken heart perceived the merriment as an overblown charade. Even holiday cards – shiny photos of families smiling out at me that I’d once rejoiced in receiving – arrived with a gut-punch. They made my inability to feel happy at a time of communal celebration all the more distressing. I understood others’ joy and thanked their kindness but it was tough explaining that this most important celebration was dead to me.
“I’m sure it’ll get better!” my friends said, and then shocked would add: “You mean you don’t have stockings or presents or anything?”
It struck them as a symptom of depression. I assured them it was not. If anything, it was a sign of my resolve to be true to my feelings.
I didn’t want to pretend everything was O.K. and was too exhausted to feign cheeriness. I refused to be pressurized into saying that I wished good things to all men — I didn’t.
I hated the fact that my son was dead. I was traumatized and needed understanding, not wrapped presents, or mince pies. Getting through the days was hard enough without also having to be insincere.
What I wanted was to hide under the covers until the holidays were done.
Yet, as is often the case with grief, it was complicated. My inability, or call it ‘choice’ if you will, to not celebrate Christmas came with a new emotion: guilt.
I experienced guilt so heavy that it flattened me. I felt an utter failure in not being able to provide a beautiful Christmas for my two still-living children.
I realized that my lack of celebration bore witness to the fact that I could not fix our grief, that there was no Christmas message that would ever take the hurt away. There would never be a present that I could gift that would replace their brother, no prayer that would ensure our happiness for years to come.
One of us would always be missing.
Like the war wounded, we staggered through the holidays and did the best we could. We did hug, a lot. We did feel grateful for what we had. We told each other how much we loved one another. We cried. We may not have unwrapped gifts because there were none but we did donate to charity. We tried.
And in our own way, very slowly, we picked up the broken pieces of our lives and redefined what Christmas meant to us. Freed of the pressure to celebrate in the traditional manner, we found our own way to be together in remembrance of the birth of Christ. We held Alex’s memory close on the anniversary of his death.
This year, my children expressed their gratitude for not having been made to celebrate a jolly Santa season in our time of deepest grief. My guilt dissipated and is gone.
Christmas is now stress-free. It’s liberating to decide for ourselves what it should look like. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but for us, our simple holiday get-together helps us honour Alex and the Nativity, whilst remaining true to ourselves.
I can well imagine that we’ll continue to redefine how we celebrate this festive season with the coming of each year as we learn to navigate through our grief.
Katja Faber is the mother of three amazing children. Following her 23-year-old son’s murder, she used her legal training to work closely with private lawyers and the State Prosecutor in her fight for justice for her dead son. She hopes to inspire others in seeking justice for their loved ones and through her writing break the taboo of homicide loss and child loss grief. She runs her own farm, a magical place where she hosts private retreats for those in need of support and healing. Katja is a certified Compassionate Bereavement Care® counselor through the Center for Loss and Trauma in partnership with the MISS Foundation and the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust.
To read her story, blog and further articles by Katja do please follow the link to her dedicated webpage in honor of her son KatjaFaber.com or alternatively read her articles on Still Standing Magazine’s author page. You can also connect with Katja on her FB writer’s page.
Katja’s continuing fight for justice for her son Alex is on Twitter. Her farming IG account where she reflects on daily life in the country and the healing process of grief is on Instagram.