12) Coping with Christmas

*This blog also appeared on the Daily Mirror’s website after they approached me to write a piece – click here to see it.

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If there was one time of year Nicola loved more than any other, it was Christmas.

Without fail, the decorations would be up on December 1 (only because I had to ban them from going up in September) and so much time would be spent planning the various activities and food for the day itself as well as who we would see and when.

So, as you can imagine, having lost Nicola in August, this Christmas is going to be a particularly tough one for us to go through.

For a start, my organisational skills are nowhere near as good as Nicola’s were and, whilst it’s true that most guys are often guilty of leaving things until the last minute, as I write this just a few days before Christmas Day itself I can’t help but feel abject terror at what I’ve still got left to sort out.

In the past, presents would all have been bought, wrapped and distributed, cards written and posted and copious amounts of food and drink already purchased. Let’s just say that right now, I haven’t even located the sticking tape, the address book or the supermarket shopping bags.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the saving grace for us this year, is Grace. At three-years-old it’s really the first time she’s fully embraced Christmas and all the fun surrounding it, which perhaps makes it all the more tragic that Nicola isn’t here to share it with her.

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The wooden tree bauble I had made for Nicola.

Grace is, however, the main focus for the family and I this year and making sure she enjoys the magic it can bring to someone her age has been a welcome distraction from the upset caused by Nicola not being here.

She’s sung Christmas songs in a performance at nursery, loves wearing any Christmassy clothing, and of course is excited about what Santa might bring her. Needless to say, the evidence so far suggests she’s going to be quite spoilt this year given everything she’s been through.

She also helped me decorate our Christmas tree. That sounds like a simple task, but Nicola’s Christmas tree design skills were rather impressive so the pressure was on to recreate it and I think we ended up doing OK once I’d spent most of December untangling the lights and stopped Grace putting 50 baubles in the same square metre of tree.

It’s little things like that which bring it home to me just how hard it will be this year. I ended up getting quite upset at one point that the house just didn’t look as good as it usually does this time of year. It almost felt like I was letting Nicola down by not making it as special as she could. She wouldn’t think that, I’m sure, but those are the kind of feelings that you can’t help encountering from time to time, and not just at Christmas.

I guess my heart just hasn’t been in it on this occasion. That will be different in future years, without doubt, but this time I’ve found it hard to fully embrace some of the traditions at which we’d always excelled with Nicola’s help.

I actually had a special bauble designed for the tree this year, a wooden one with a dove on it and the message ‘In memory of Nicola/Mummy, we miss you’. We’ve of course got memories and photos of Nicola all over the house, but a simple presence on the tree seemed apt, even though I can get a bit emotional every time I look at it.

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Nicola, Grace and I pictured last Christmas, which we knew was likely to be Nicola’s last.

It’s so often the case that people spend Christmas surrounded by loved ones and whilst that should happen as much as possible at all times of the year, the festive period always seems to have that something special attached to it. This time last year, Nicola had not long been diagnosed as terminally ill and we knew there was a strong chance it would be her last Christmas. That sadly proved to be true, but the joy she took from seeing Grace open her presents and being around her family will always stay with me.

The four months since Nicola died have been a rollercoaster of grief and emotion but also full of lots of fun and laughter as we remember an incredibly clever, bubbly and wonderful person. That’s how I want Christmas to be too as her family and friends all get together, because even though she’s not here in person, she certainly will be in spirit and we’ll raise a glass or two to her, that’s for sure, just like I hope people everywhere do as they remember those they’ve lost.

On Christmas Day itself, I’ll go to Nicola’s grave, place a wreath and some flowers and spend a little time alone with her there as I often do. Going there doesn’t yet get any easier, but given how she felt about this time of year in particular, I can’t let it pass without at some point being next to her, maybe talking to her a little bit about the day, smiling as I remember previous festive fun and simply saying: ‘Merry Christmas, babe’.

11) A bit of a progress report

So how on earth are we coping so far? That’s pretty much the essence of many questions fired my way at the moment so, you know me by now, I’ll blog the answer out.

Well, we’re doing OK. We miss Nicola every day, that will never change, but as has been the case since day one, Grace is keeping us in line in more ways than one and we’re trying to get on with life as much as we can.

Most of the formalities that took up so much time to sort out after Nicola died are now dealt with and I’m back working at full capacity having gradually phased back in over a few weeks. It’s not been easy, I must admit, as my motivation levels aren’t great at the moment for obvious reasons, but whereas some widowed folk I’ve come across took anything from six months to a year to even consider working again, for me it was a case of using it as a distraction and a tool for ensuring I didn’t just end up wallowing.

A big part of the grieving process is accepting that what’s happened has happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That might sound straightforward, but believe me it’s not.

It wasn’t so much denial I felt initially, more disbelief that Nicola wasn’t here. She’d been by my side more or less every day for 11 years and all of a sudden she wasn’t and that was hard to process.

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Not having Nicola around as always was very hard to accept at first. (Excuse the sun burn in this photo)

As time goes by, that feeling slowly ebbs away as I come to terms with having to make decisions by myself. Some are easier than others of course. Where they involve Grace, whilst I’m fine with most, I sometimes have to rely on the advice of nearest and dearest if I’m not sure about something.

So my levels of acceptance are getting better and as I talk to and read about more and more people going through similar circumstances, I realise just how horribly common situations like this are. Talking about it helps – I still talk about Nicola with huge pride and affection and always will. Yes, that in turn can make me sad, but it’s an important part of the recovery process.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, I have tried to keep busy doing things that cheer me up. On nights I don’t have Grace – she stays at Nicola’s parents’ a couple of nights a week and sometimes on Saturdays – I usually prefer not to mope around the house and have found myself disappearing off to random football matches or heading out to buy stuff for the house. This widowhood thing is expensive…

I’ve had nights out with friends which have been great too. They’re not the same without Nicola of course, who was the life and soul of many a gathering, and getting ready to go out on my own and getting in taxis by myself takes a bit of getting used to. At least getting ready by myself means we get out a bleedin’ sight quicker.

My advice to anyone in this situation is to do all of that. Anything at all that makes you smile is crucial, whether it’s activities, people, thoughts or the whole lot combined. Despair can so easily be drowned out by joy.

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Grace is thriving and decided she wants to be a chef. Well, for about ten minutes before she then decided she wanted to be Elsa from Frozen again.

When it comes to Grace, I’m getting most stuff right I think. She’s happy, healthy and thriving, which is all I can ever ask for and given the circumstances is something I’m very happy about. She asks questions and talks about her mummy here and there, but seems to have grasped things really well and is quick to cuddle me if she sees I’m a bit sad.

The ‘wobbles’ I talked about in another blog still happen of course, and it’s often very small things that set them off, but maybe they’re necessary to get it out of my system.

This is going to be a long and difficult journey and things are still sinking in, but having gone a long way towards getting over the initial raw pain of what’s happened, I’d like to think Nicola would be proud of the progress we’re making.