“Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love”, CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed (1966) and no time of year offers a greater sense of this than Christmas, with its traditions and jollity and its focus on family and friends. Losing a family member at such a time can bring with it an added level of grief. From then on, Christmas is coloured with their loss.
This makes subsequent Christmases particularly fraught. Walking into a brightly lit and decorated shop, with Christmas carols on a loop, can be an emotional minefield; a cruel reminder of a joy from which you now feel excluded.
When my father was dying in hospital at Christmas a few decades ago, I was struck by how kindly the staff had decorated his ward. There was a tree and most of the beds were decked with tinsel. Staff wore Santa hats and offered visitors mince pies and Christmas cake. Despite their efforts, it was very bleak. Never had Christmas jollity seemed so hollow.
As a writer I also found myself gathering these contradictory moments of joy and sorrow for future reference. It seemed a logical approach. Managing the awful realisation that my father had only days left, meant also observing everything closely – the way the tinsel moved with the ward’s heating, the presents we opened with my father even though he was unconscious and unable to enjoy them.
This sense of letting someone go while the rest of the world was partying was both horrible and, yet, creative. I decided that this scene would at some point find its way into a future novel or story. Managing grief in this creative way is not unusual and is healthy, according to the Harvard Medical School who suggest that “disclosing deep emotions through writing can boost immune function as well as mood and wellbeing”.
I also think that we write to understand and to convey that understanding to our readers. “It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish”, French author Jules Renard wrote in 1925, and not much has changed since then – well, certainly not for me anyway. But people, like me, who love reading search for meaning in books and we also seek to understand our own emotional journey through grief by writing about it.
But writing your grief requires a specific kind of skill.
When writing from raw emotion it’s best not to self-censor or over fret about the work’s quality; not initially anyway. Getting your emotions down on the page is a good way to assuage your grief because it requires courage and honesty to pay homage to a lost loved one and also to your personal loss.
The writer Joan Didion fearlessly chronicled her grief at the loss of her family in books like The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, though not everyone is comfortable reading them. The Australian reviewer, Andrew Reimer, wrote of how he felt like “an intruder into a very private sorrow” after reading Didion’s Blue Night.
Reading or writing about grief is not for the faint-hearted. Like all writing, it’s best not to edit too early. Let the work rest and come back to it when ready. Save that first raw draft and create a new version when you feel you’ve moved on to another, more objective stage.
Edit it slowly, allowing the meaning to rise while removing anything that no longer feels right. Use photo prompts to inspire reflection and memorialising. Think too of those small details – a swathe of tinsel moving in time with a respirator or a carol on an audio loop.
The right time
A decade after my father’s death, each Christmas afterwards transformed into something joyous but melancholy, rich with family and friends but also the absence of him. At that point, I wrote the poem below. The time seemed right:
A birth, a death
We remember you when the Christmas lights are hung,
bright globules of optimism against the early dark,
and shop windows fill with reindeers, elves, beribboned boxes.
Your hospital celebrated Christmas too,
the coloured lights strung between ward stations,
drips and defibrillators.
The nurses made a good show of it,
though you were too far gone for presents
so we opened yours for you.
We celebrate a new life
while remembering the end of yours,
tinsel bright, star light. When Christmas is over
you linger, of course,
into the new year, then Easter, mid-summer,
and in the falling of the leaves,
as you must,
whatever the season.
The creative writing academic, Brooke Davis, wrote: “Grief is not neat like a narrative arc. It does not end; it is not ‘resolved’. It does not follow a checklist of emotions from beginning to end. It is not one thing, or the other thing; it is lots of things.”
That seems the way to approach both the emotion and the art that comes from it.
It’s a season of storytelling and memories. Whatever we do at Christmas, we share it with the living and the dead. Grief and happiness are perfect creative partners in bringing us back together.
Catherine Cole is Professor in Creative Writing, Associate Dean, Research and University Governor, Liverpool John Moores University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.