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Dublin: 5°C Tuesday 25 January 2022

Christmas after losing your Dad: 'I'm trying to accept the suddenness and unfairness of it'

Angry energy and a cluttered mind. This is what grief is, writes Vicky Kavanagh.

Vicky Kavanagh

2016 WAS A year of death. Did a month even pass before the Reaper came to claim another? Bowie, Cohen and Ali now burn as bright diamonds in the night sky of our minds. But the death I will forever associate with 2016 is that of my Dad.

As I tumble through the grief into the most wonderful time of the year and normally, my favourite, there’s a collision of emotions inside me.

Three weeks after my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, I was hosting my first wake. I hadn’t exactly had much processing time. I clawed through the endless days of sorrow and pain in the hospital. I stood in a room of coffins trying to pick one out when I had no clue what was “good” about a coffin.

I tried to be gracious and collected to the people who attended the wake with their sandwiches and condolences. My Dad lay in a wooden box with Kylie Jenner eyebrows. The dead never look the same as they did when they were alive. But after all that, I simply had no idea how to deal with my grief.

‘I needed answers’

So with the buck up spirit that I was not the first member of the “Dead Parent Club” as I call it – not nearly as exclusive as SoHo House, but not nearly as much demand to be a member either – I went to the library, assured that the answers to my questions would be located between the Louise L Hays and copies of “The Secret”. Bejaysus.

Once I discarded anything with a religious tone or crystals, my options weren’t great. Then as I scanned the book covers, I realised that most of them dealt with grief in an abstract way, in terminology of life cycles and natural progressions.

Given my Dad was 55 this didn’t exactly fit my circumstances. My other problem was that none of them dealt with grief in real time. The earliest anyone of them began talking about grief was 12 months after the person had passed away. I needed answers now.

How was I meant to get out of bed in the morning? How was I meant to not feel guilty for laughing when my Dad had died two weeks ago? What the heck was I meant to do with all his stuff while I lived in someone else’s home and had no money to pay for storage? And was it okay that I put his ashes in a Keeling’s fruit container?

He died too soon

The last 7 months have been a voyage of discovery. A voyage that I had hoped I would take, after my Dad had walked me down the aisle and maybe met his grandchildren. After he came to the launch party of my first book and we had travelled to exotic places together. I had expected this voyage to happen when we were both far older than 55 and 25.

At times, the grief has raged like a storm inside me, crashing and angry, visceral and uncontrollable. At other times, it has come in the still of the night. It’s my broken heart and my sobbing eyes, my mind unable to accept the finality of it all.

I’ve allowed myself to cry when I needed to, the tears falling sometimes most unexpectedly. Like last week, as I went into town to do some Christmas shopping. The combination of listening to his favourite Christmas song, the bittersweet memories of our last Christmas Eve together and the juxtaposition of loving this time of year and it feeling a lot less wonderful this year, made me break down.

I wiped away tears as I walked out of the Dart station. I find myself flabbergasted at times that instead of us picking out decorations for the tree together, an annual pastime, I’m looking at decorations that I can put a picture of him into, in memorial.

shutterstock_249465919 I do not know what the next few months hold. But I do know I will deal with them the only way any of us can, moment by moment. Source: Shutterstock/Antonio Guillem

Grief is the last big taboo that no-one wants to talk about

There are a few simple things I do to manage it all. First, I talk. I openly acknowledge that this will probably be the toughest Christmas of my life. That on the 25th, that I, like many others, will be a raw nerve. I will feel happiness and sadness, joy and anger all in one day but that’s okay.

I will take the day as it comes and I will not force a mask of abject happiness onto my face. I will feel what I need to feel in the knowledge that I will be stronger for getting through it.

I do not have a wide circle of people I can talk to. One thing my Dad’s death exposed for me is that the friendships I thought essential and unbreakable are one-sided and superficial. People say they will be there, but the practice for some of that sentiment is hollow.

It has made me feel even more alone and isolated at times. So I found a grief counsellor. I talk to the people I do have around me, wonderful, kind and compassionate creatures who have walked me through my dark days.

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‘I feel angry and cheated’

I took up running. Not because exercise can be the sole exorcist of sorrow, but because for a while at least, I feel free. For a while, the sadness recedes. It is time I take for myself a few times a week to channel my angry energy and cluttered mind.

I’m trying to accept the suddenness and unfairness of it all. I doubt there will ever be a time when I don’t feel cheated, that my Dad was cheated. But he would not want me to live a life of anger bubbling beneath the surface and all the justified rage in the world will not bring him back.

So little by little, I try to accept. I remind myself that I cannot change the circumstance, I can only control how I live with its presence.

Getting through Christmas

Before Christmas, I will cry. I will laugh and smile too. I will remember him without pain on one occasion. On another, I’ll smell his cologne bottle and in that moment, it will feel too much to bear.

I do not know what the next few months hold. But I do know I will deal with them the only way any of us can, moment by moment.

Christmas Day will be a 24-hour moment, so I’ll take it hour by hour. I will kiss his picture and raise my glass to him and be so glad I had him at all. I’ll sing “Fairytale of New York” with tears in my eyes and dream of a 2017 for me and him. Merry Christmas.

Vicky Kavanagh is assistant producer on Agenda on TV3 and a mental health ambassador for ReachOut.com. She tweets over at @VickyWrites and is on Instagram @THEREALVICKYKAVANAGH.

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