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Grieving a child, surviving Christmas

Compassionate Friends chair Maria Ahern and son James at Christmas

The first Christmas that followed her 22-year old son James’ death in a road accident, was viscerally raw for Maria Ahern, as she struggled to survive it.

Still learning to live in a world without her only child five years on, family law solicitor Maria now supports other parents grieving their child, as UK chair of The Compassionate Friends.

There for parents and families who’ve lost a child of any age no matter how long ago, the charity’s volunteer-run telephone helpline will be open daily throughout Christmas. It’s a time when, says Maria, bereaved families are bracing themselves for the grief triggers to hit and are developing their coping strategies.

“We are all in this together and we will get through it together,” says Maria, as she shares her own journey through a grief that will never diminish – but with the support of others who are grieving, has found it a little easier to live with the pain.

Grieving a child, surviving Christmas – Maria Ahern

This is such a hard time for the bereaved and for parents who have lost their child. I look back on that first Christmas and parts of it are stuck vividly in my mind. Other parts are a complete blur. The pain is visceral and all I wanted to do most of the time was to scream like a wild animal.

Of course you can't go around doing that, so you fit your mask and try to comply. That is the hardest thing. The compliance. The expectation to do it all the same as before because that is the custom.

James was my only child. He was a stunningly handsome, loving, charming 22 year old when he died. He was my soul mate and we did everything together. I have learned to adapt my relationship with James but I still talk to him, I write to him and he is part of every thought I have or decision I make.

I miss him with every breath and whilst I am learning to live in a world without him in it, it is not as bright a world as it was when James was here.

Compassionate Friends Grief at Christmas - portrait of James AhernJames was Maria’s only child

That first Christmas, I remember going to run an errand in town and being confronted with the Christmas market. Young men drinking beer from plastic cups all wearing their silly Christmas jumpers. Where was my boy?

Trying to collect my thoughts to buy something that would resemble a Christmas dinner. Too painful. That little token turkey was as pitiful as we were.

Then thinking about James's young friends who were going to visit us, (or check up on us, bless them) and wanting to treat them with a gift and succumbing to the grief in a department store full of happy shoppers. That first year was awful, the pain was palpable and my heart goes out to all those who are going through it this year.

The following year I resolved to go at an easier pace. I thought about the most painful situations and avoided them and I gave myself permission to do it my way. I had now found The Compassionate Friends charity and I volunteered to man the Christmas Day helpline.

compassionate friends logo

This gave me a focus on the day which was completely different to any other Christmas and I felt useful again. If I could use my experience to help others, that was a good thing to do with my grief.

Every year is different and I have learned to go with my instincts. I’m still not sure how this year is going to look.

It certainly has changed. I'm certainly not holding my breath constantly or bursting into tears in the middle of department stores anymore. I am avoiding the town centre as much as possible at the moment though.

I have learned, I think, to navigate the grief. People say that it hits you like a wave when you least expect it. That is true, but I have likened it more to walking through a minefield with no map.

Without experience, you will hit all sorts of problems but grief, like most things, becomes more manageable the more time you spend understanding it.

I'm not sure it ever gets easier. This will be my fifth Christmas without James and I could feel the cloud beginning to build as soon as the Christmas hype began.

james ahernPicture: James Ahern Foundation

However, the pain is now familiar and I have lived with it for over four years. I have grown used to having it in my life and so I guess that this could be perceived as being "easier" in a way.

What words of comfort are there for others who have lost a child? It would be lovely to come up with a magic form of words that would do the trick. In all honesty, I can’t. There are no words to provide comfort in this unimaginable situation.

When the unimaginable becomes reality and you have to face it while everyone is wishing you a merry this and a fabulous that, it is really quite literally, breathtaking.

At this time of year, we don’t need to pretend. Who are we pretending for? The memories of Christmas past may sustain you in Christmas present. Let them come crashing in and allow yourself a smile remembering those happy times. We need them. One moment, one breath at a time.

The Compassionate Friends National Helpline will be open during the Christmas period: 0345 123 2304 (10 am - 4 pm, 7 pm - 10 pm everyday)

If you are facing Christmas without a loved one, read more about coping with grief and the support organisations that may help, in our bereavement support section.