Monday, December 5, 2016

A Death at Christmas

Creating Good Memories After a Loss

I knew something was wrong when my dad came to take me out of fifth grade in the middle of the day. In the old grey ’49 Plymouth, mum was crying. Soon we were at Idlewild for my first flight back home- London, England.

For days, my aunt Joan’s home in East Finchley (North London) was a grand central station-- family coming and going. Funny old stories repeated. Newfangled Lego blocks were really cool. A visit to Aunt Lilly and Uncle Jack’s sweet shop (actually a small grocers- I focus on what’s important). Then there were trips to old friends. The lights of Oxford St and Regent St. A walk with dad by the Thames whilst mum grieved with her sisters and her dad. Good memories amidst the sorrow.

The 5th December, marks the anniversary of my maternal grandmother’s death and a special memory.

I’ve lived more than six decades. My wife and I have known many losses. And some of our loved ones died very close to Christmas.

I’ve learned people cope in different ways when someone’s missing from a chair.

An annual trip doesn’t happen anymore.
A Christmas card is missing.
A present bought remains unopened.
An old story lingers untold.
A photo album triggers tears.

I was only 11 when me gran died. For me it wasn’t a sad memory because my relatives were somehow able to balance their grief with a focus on the children and the joy of seeing each other again.

Life draws us forward if we let it. I’m fortunate to have grandchildren. Highly active and enthusiastic lives keep us anchored in the present and set up markers for a hopeful future—birthday parties and such.

Christian and secular cultures support the living-- drawing us toward giving, singing, laughing, hugging, celebrating. And seeing nostalgic films.

Death can’t steal Christmas when the past is sealed with a kiss.

No. It’s not all Merry Christmas.

There are times I’ve felt alone in a crowd.
Times when memories brought anger rather than sadness.
Times when those absent were more prominent than those present.
And strangely, times when death meant guilty relief.

For me, remembering a death at Christmas is like a car journey across my timeline. Heading back in time I look for those good people and places. I know the way back home. I know how to avoid the dangerous parts of town. My mental seatbelt anchors me to the present. And on my return to the present, the past recedes like an image in a rear-view mirror. Somehow, I’ve learned to look forward to the past and the future.

If you struggle with a loss at Christmas or any other family holiday, I hope you quickly find a path to happiness again. And that you share your path with others feeling the pain.


As a psychologist, I know memories are dynamic and that people present at the same event will have different memories of the event. It's important to cut people some slack rather than argue over details. Recalling and sharing memories with others can help us heal.

The Pan Am flight was fantastic- glad dad captured a moment. I recommend someone capture the moment. It makes the journey back in time much easier. Even my mother could smile in this photo.

One nice thing about old photos is seeing things you didn't see before like all the other groceries at my Uncle Jack Timms' shop (pictured below). We naturally pay attention to the people in photos. That's great-- but I also enjoy the snapshot of culture in anyone's photo-- this is in North London December, 1961.

Forgiveness is a blessing. Letting go of slights and harsh memories allows me to remember the good things about people. Forgiveness is a virtue for people of most religious faiths and those without faith. For Christians, forgiveness is a command that brings life.

Coming together as family can be very supportive when there's closeness. Fortunately, my father lined up some family members. I understand my mother's closeness to her dad and sister when I see the photo (my mother is in the middle). Many of us can do more to support family in times of loss.

The recent surge of interest in ancestry caught my interest a few years ago. I do not have an exhaustive list of connections like some do. I think the ancestry quest a fine way to soothe painful memories by somehow connecting the living with the dead in one grand family tree.

For example, I came across my grandmother's death certificate in my mothers files when looking for old photos. Somehow it helped anchor my memories in reality. A real, kind-hearted woman, lived for nearly eight decades and survived two World Wars. I could go on- you get the drift-thinking about the life and times of our relatives can be rewarding.

In some ways, I just created an online tribute to my grandmother, Louisa (New) Clayton 1884 - 1961,  of London England. Creating online tributes to our loved ones is a way to externalize losses.  And sometimes it may help others as well.

Some find solace in more explicitly religious ways to cope that are unique to their faith. For example, some think about the deceased relatives in heaven or imagine them looking down upon them. Those ideas do not help me but I am glad they help others. It's best not to assume all religious people cope in the same way.

Prayers can be helpful to people of many faiths. But be mindful that some aren't in the mood to pray.

Some like to light a candle in memory of their loved one. And some don't grieve that way.

Skipping Christmas is a book by John Grisham. But the book title represents a way to cope with loss. If feeling overwhelmed, skipping Christmas or a holiday celebration may be the right thing- there will be more. On the other hand, many benefit by investing themselves in a holiday routine. Sometimes routines can be less stressful than figuring some alternative.

Realize that family and friends may not have a clue about the way each close family member copes with a loss. It's best to avoid harsh judgment of others and focus on what we need to do to get along.

Children respond to a family loss in different ways. Some may be more affected by the response of their parents than by the loss of the loved one. Obviously it matters who died and the connection of the child. Children can be forgotten or smothered in uncomfortable ways.

Getting Help: For Oneself or a Friend

Sometimes grief become severe.

Psychologist locator:
NAMI for questions about mental health: 1-800-950-6264;
Call your physician

Focus on the Family Counseling Line 1-855-771-4357;
Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS)
American Association of Christian Counselors
See if your pastor provides counseling or referrals

Emergencies: In the USA call 911

Crisis: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
     Crisis Text to 741-741

Read more about grief

APA (American Psychological Association)
En espaƱol:


Idlewild was the common name for the NY International Airport, renamed JFK on 24 December, 1963
Legos came to Britain in 1959. The first set I saw belonged to Cousin Terry. I didn’t play with them again until my son had some.

Grey- both spellings are acceptable but gray is more common in the US and grey in the UK. Grey and other basic words messed up my spelling as a lad in the US.

Grocers- English for a convenience store with food and other items. I choose to remember the best things about a place so, chockies and chocky biskits (have a gusess)
Sweets- American candy

Me Gran- London speak for My Grandmother. I don’t know but I was raised saying "me" for my- thanks to me dad. Some other, but not all, English use "me" for "my." in informal coversation.

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Note: I no longer provide counseling, psychotherapy, or personal consultations.

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