Those of you who follow Planet Grief through the Facebook page will know that I lost the Christmas cards that I bought earlier this year. It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly organised in August, but I was in a shop when I spotted cards with dachshunds on them, so I bought the lot, put them away, and then when I needed them, I couldn’t find them. The good news is that eventually they turned up hidden behind a row of books on a bookshelf, something I only discovered because I was hunting for the mug of coins I keep for parking change, which obviously I’d also hidden behind books.
Anyway, as you will see from the attached photo, 2015’s cards have been written, stamped and are now posted, all 104 of them, a draining task that explains why there is a glass of red wine just in shot.
The first Christmas after a bereavement can be grim on many levels, and one of the hurdles to jump is the solitary signing of the Christmas cards. I wrote about this in 2011 in my Planet Grief post, Pig of A Season, because having initially decided to do what I did at school when faced with real life athletic hurdles (invent an injury/monster period/hide – anything rather than attempt to get my legs over at speed), I decided to take a run at the card signing and see what happened.
It was horribly painful to sign ‘Helen’ when I had been merrily signing ‘Helen & John’ for decades, and doing it underneath a message which proclaimed ‘Merry Christmas!’ made me want to draw the curtains, turn out the lights, unplug the phone and sit sobbing with a litre of cooking sherry and Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ playing on a loop. But that first Christmas, I did send cards, and I was glad that I did, because for me, to have ducked the task would have felt as if The Grim Reaper had won. Again.
At the time, those cards were written in defiance of grief, but later, I realised that the cards of 2011 and those in the years that followed had been very significant. In that first year or so, I was sometimes angry and upset with ‘friends’ who I thought (sometimes erronouesly) had let me down, but a once-a-year card kept those threads between us intact, however fragile. The second Christmas as a widow, I did think about crossing some people off the list because I hadn’t heard from them during the year, but for the most part, I sent a card and we kept in touch. Subsequently, a few fell off my list, not through anger or bitterness, but because it felt as if that particular relationship had run its course, and I realised that those cards were being written out of duty, not from the heart.
Now, facing my fifth Christmas without JS, I enjoy receiving cards from people who I’m not particularly close to on a regular basis, but who were part of my old life. On some level, I’m fond of them or the memories they evoke, still interested in how their lives are unfolding. It gives me pleasure to open a card and see a scribbled line or two: ‘Jack is off to university’ – ‘We have another grandchild’ – ‘Lovely to hear you on Woman’s Hour’ – etc. I’ve even enjoyed reading the Christmas letters, though I can’t help mocking one or two particularly puffed-up missives. When I was first widowed, I was upset that everyone else’s life was carrying on along the path they expected it to, whereas a ruddy great sinkhole had appeared on mine. Now, I feel comforted getting these snippets of life. It makes me feel more normal in this ‘new normal’ life I’m living, because believe me, life still feels far from normal at times.
I know that many people no longer send Christmas cards, preferring to donate money to their chosen charity. This is absolutely fine if that’s your thing, in fact, this year, my family have decided not to give each other gifts, but instead we are nominating a charity to which donations are being given in lieu of presents. (Don’t try this with young children. They won’t understand they’re not getting a Star Wars lego set so that a child in Africa can sleep under a mosquito net. Sometimes charity has to begin at home). But if you have decided not to send Christmas cards this year because you can’t face it, in other words, you’ve swerved the hurdle, I’ve got an idea. No, I’m not going to suggest that you suddenly start writing Christmas cards the day before Christmas Eve or even fire off e-cards which open with Jingle Bells. Christmas is hard enough to deal with without some mad widow in Hertfordshire barking out festive orders. But how about this? Some years ago, before I was widowed, we received a card after Christmas from someone who said that they were sorry that they hadn’t sent a Christmas card, but that life had overtaken them. They they hoped we understood (we did) and that we had a good year ahead of us.
I’m glad that I sent those Christmas cards when I was widowed, as hard as it was. I couldn’t see it at the time, but Christmas cards have kept some continuity to my life. They have been far more important than little rectangles of colour and glitter sent once a year would suggest.
If you haven’t sent cards, how about saying ‘Hello’ in the New Year to those people who sent you cards this year. If you can’t face doing it in the New Year, there is always next Christmas. People will understand, and I can guarantee that they will be happy to hear from you, just as I am (now) happy to hear from them.
This is the last blog post before Christmas, but do visit the Facebook page, as I will be rambling on there.