Christmas is a notoriously difficult time for people who’ve lost loved ones.
Georgia Elms lost her husband to meningitis in 2006. The day after he died, she found out she was pregnant with their second daughter.
Georgia, who is chairperson of Widowed and Young (WAY), a charity supporting men and women aged 50 and under after they lose a partner, tells HuffPost UK: “There’s no getting around it that Christmas is a difficult time when you’ve been widowed – as many of our members know only too well.
“Your first Christmas on your own is likely to be one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face, and it’s best to make sure you have lots of friends or family on hand to help with cooking, shopping and entertaining.
“You’re not likely to feel much like celebrating yourself. And even in the midst of all the jollity, there will be times when you will probably feel wretched.”
With 25 December fast approaching, we spoke to six people who have lost a partner about their coping mechanisms for surviving such a painful period.
Rebecca lost her husband almost seven years ago, during the Christmas period.
She says: “Christmas is a terribly difficult time of year for all bereaved people – but when you are widowed at Christmas, as I was, it becomes hard to see the festive season as anything other than the anniversary of your partner’s death. And my husband loved Christmas so much – this season is full of memories of him.
“I try to remind myself that despite all the hype, it is really just a few days and will be over soon. But it takes more than that to survive it. The best Christmas I’ve had since being widowed was the one I spent in Hawaii. On Christmas Day, I ate a fish wrap by the pool and posed for a photo on the beach with a Santa dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. My friends commented that it really didn’t feel like Christmas – something that was absolutely perfect from my point of view.
“But I obviously can’t afford to do this every year. So sometimes it’s just about not giving myself time to think. I accept almost every invitation and try to have as little spare time as possible between 1 December and New Year’s Day. Not trying to recreate Christmases from the past helps too. For example, instead of going out and choosing a Christmas tree, with all the memories attached of doing it as a couple, I bought a rooted Christmas tree in a pot and that now comes indoors every year. It’s a new tradition – I like to think that my husband would have smiled at that.”
Susannah Harrison, 49, South Bucks
Susannah lost her husband Tim five years ago.
“I survived it by completely ignoring it last year. It was our first Christmas where we were at home alone and we did stuff-all about it. The kids wanted to do nothing so that’s what we did. I didn’t even buy one present, as the kids had big things early.
“We managed to decorate the tree but that was it. My daughter is always in panto so I help out loads there and we collapse when it’s done.”
This year, things will be a lot different for Susannah, who is a member of the charity Widowed and Young: “We are counting the days as a bunch of us who don’t know each other are off to Lapland for five days with 33 kids ranging from 4-16 years old. We’re all hoping to reset the Christmas spirit button.”
Veronica Currie, 43, Perthshire in Scotland
Veronica’s husband died in June 2016. They have two daughters aged 12 and 13, and this Christmas will be the second without him.
“Last year we did something different by spending part of the day at my cousin’s house,” Veronica, who is also a member of WAY, explains. “It was busy with lots of family and younger cousins so lots of distractions. I took a bottle of my husband’s favourite whiskey and everyone raised a toast to him.
“This year we’re going to my husband’s parents’ house. It’s going to be tough but lovely to be together. Christmas is painful… so much emphasis is on fun and celebration. Our missing loved ones are glaringly not there.
“Last year my eldest daughter wrote ′dad’ on her Christmas list. This year my youngest daughter said there’s no point in Christmas as the only thing she really wants she can’t get… her dad. It’s tough for everyone.”
Tips from WAY for coping with grief at Christmas:
:: Do something different – go away or visit a different relative, or perhaps friends. By changing your routine you won’t have the same memory cues.
:: If you have younger children, make sure someone takes them out to buy you a gift.
:: Don’t push yourself beyond what you feel able to do. Bereavement is exhausting so remember to get enough sleep and don’t feel you have to do everything you used to. You could email a Christmas message to friends instead of writing cards. They will understand.
:: Use the Christmas tree as a place to hang special mementoes, or photos or letters. You could also have a candle in a corner of a room to burn throughout Christmas, perhaps beside a special photo.
:: Let children buy a present for the mum or dad they have lost, if they want to, or write cards. You could send letters up the chimney when you’re doing letters to Santa.
:: Buy yourself a gift from your partner – he or she would have wanted you to have something and you deserve it.
Stuart Scarbrough, 36, Lichfield
Stuart’s wife Katie died from bowel cancer in May 2013. For the first couple of Christmases after her death, the family went to Lanzarote.
″I didn’t feel like having Christmas dinner with an empty chair at the table so opted for Christmas in the sun,” Stuart explains. “It was my version of escapism and distraction from our loss. The kids were happy playing in the pool, the sun was shining, the cocktails were flowing so I was happy too.
“On Christmas day, Santa left a present each on the balcony for Sam and Sophie with the rest waiting at home on their return, the hotel organised for Santa to come to the hotel on Christmas day with some small presents and sweets for all the children. Instead of being at home sad and upset we came back rested having spent quality family time in the sun, which worked for us.”
This year things will be a little different for the family. “We will have 20 people at ours for Christmas day with my new wife’s family and mine. I got married to Colette this summer who is also widowed so it is a very hectic household,” Stuart says.
“I buy a heart shape wreath with purple decorations each year for Katie’s grave.”
Gemma Mason, 35, Birmingham
Gemma’s husband passed away a few days after their daughter Bethany’s second birthday in between Christmas and New Year. This Christmas will be their fourth without him.
“The days in between Christmas and New Year are a strange time for most people I think, there’s a bit of a lull,” Gemma says. “Our daughter is a great distraction for me and I don’t want Christmas to be anything other than a happy, exciting time for her.
“For our first Christmas we spent time with both sides of the family, it felt very important to me that we saw my husband’s parents and grandparents, it was a very painful time for them and I think our daughter’s presence helped.
“We then went to Butlins for the days in between Christmas and New Year, it was great to be somewhere new and different that first year, but I have no plans to do it again.
“Now generally we try and embrace Christmas, we keep busy doing lots of different activities, making as many memories as we can with laughter and smiles but it does mean that we are shattered come New Year. January is probably harder, starting a New Year without my husband for me means we are getting further away from each other.”
Gwen, 49, Berkshire
Gwen’s husband Rob died suddenly in April 2014. This will be Gwen’s fourth Christmas without him. ″Every year has been different and every year has been hard,” she explains.
“There has always been a new ‘first’: the first Christmas without him, the first Christmas with his family without him, the first Christmas at home (and the first with me cooking the dinner). This year’s first is being away at Christmas with my fellow WAYers on a Lapland trip.
“It seemed easier to cope when the kids were younger as you could gee them up a bit with decorating, but I now have two teens and it’s actually harder in many ways.
“I’ve started two traditions since Rob died: the first is where the kids buy a new decoration each and it goes on a special little tree I bought called the ‘daddy tree’. They will build up a little collection of decorations each.
“The second is where, on Christmas Eve (usually), we write a few lines or a letter to dad and pop it in an envelope and put it in his stocking, which we still hang. The idea is that one day we can all read back on those letters and see how far we have come.”