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  • Writer's pictureelmarfleet

December: The Next Right Thing

It will be no surprise to read that December is incredibly tough for bereaved families. It's a month/month and a half long conversation continually being started around us by friends, family, the media, the boys' schools as well as my own inner voice. Songs on the radio, decorations to put up, and dates of annual celebrations and wintertime routines remind me of moments from Christmases past. The happy memories are double edged now with all the old wishes and hopes for future times that I can no longer have with Tom. All this emotional heaviness, in preparation for one day. It's overwhelming and it's exhausting. This year, my fourth without Tom, I have become more organised than ever before. I try to do all the things before all the things derail me. I'm a couple without a partner and I have so much I need to do. So I try to balance my Christmas busy-ness with time to stop, reset and breathe in a new way that I have learnt from lockdowns: I close the curtains, light the fire, open some wine and popcorn, and watch a movie or Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. In this safe space I can disengage from all the Christmas noise and pressure and just be with my boys.

December brings the highest number of highs and lows for a month in the year, and it can switch from one to the other in a fraction of a heartbeat. All the rituals and memories of past years swirl round and within the new ones I try to make. But we are now a family of four with an empty chair in our home and that won't change. Tom is missing from everything. I can try to protect myself from those more difficult moments, but they find their way in, surging on through to twist my heart, my stomach and my throat. Tom loved Christmas and Daniel reminds us of how his daddy would put on our Now That's What I Call Christmas CD as we decorate the tree. I have learnt now to buy a smaller tree than the one we'd get when Tom was alive so I can reach the top for the star easily and not feel that frustration and intense pain of missing Tom doing it for us. It's always the little things that get to me. So, it's my job now to put the star on the top and the lights onto the tree, and it isn't easy to do by yourself but it's done and I feel proud. However as I step back to look at my work this year, I realise that I'm holding my breath. Our minds and our bodies are always in synch, and grief affects me both emotionally and physically. There isn't one without the other and I must take care of that. Now the tree is ready for the boys to dress, and they love re-discovering old decorations, those they've made and those they remember year after year, and it's a joy to watch.

And then I see it in the decorations box, and I smile - the photo album I made Tom for his last Christmas, although I didn't know it then. For December 2018, I gave Tom an envelope each day leading up to Christmas Day like an advent calendar. Enclosed in each one was a photo from our lives together, a photographic story of "us", and a task for the day. 25 daily December challenges from giving each of us a kiss (not a challenge as such I know, he added to the note, "Done with pleasure"), to bringing home "something Christmassy" or finding an outdoor space to take a photo of during his lunch break. As each was completed, I added the photos and challenges to an album along with a note on his progress written by him or me or one of the boys. This album gives me happy memories and I love the conversation between us all as he comments on them. I will try not to read them in one go this year so that December 2022 can give me 25 special moments, one a day, like they did for Tom in 2018. 25 special moments to remember and to share with the boys and a big way to put Tom into the centre of that month long conversation about Christmas. This album is my treasure, and like my heart, I hold it gently.

I need to hold my heart gently because those grief kicks come thick and fast this month. I know people don't mean to cause hurt but last year for 2021, wishing the boys and me a "return to normal for 2022" in Christmas cards left me feeling lost and confused. "Normal" existed when Tom was here, and I can't return to that life without a miracle. I know people who write those wishes aren't really thinking of me and are on the conveyer belt of Christmas card writing. They are wishing for a better year for all after 2020 and I get that, but those who actually care about me and the boys, write something more personal and they mean the world right now. Their carefully considered words give me a comforting squeeze rather than a painful grief kick and I know that they will be thinking of us this Christmas.

Since 2019, I have put Christmas cards sent to us into a box, not sure whether to put them up with their lists of 'whole' families. I know this hurt will ease in time as I get more used to it, but I have to realise what I can and can't do and be ok with how it is right now. Grief isn't a linier path to travel along; it has ups, it has downs, and it has turning everything inside out. I know to an outsider that this sounds crazy but grief is crazy in so many ways and it doesn't make sense when you're on the inside either. It's more helpful to accept it for what it is in that moment, to simply let it be. In three and a half years, I have learnt that I am still in love with Tom and always will be. I will always miss him not being in this life that we wanted to share, he will always be missing from me. Grief is heavy and I carry it in the silence and I carry it with me in the noise. I carry it in my tears, I carry it through the pain of others, and I carry it in my smiles. An outsider won't always see it, but it is always there, and I need to learn to balance myself around it for my physical health, for my mental health and for the mental and physical health of our boys, as the love he left behind. I will...

"...Just do the next right thing

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can to do

The next right thing..."

I have chosen the song, The Next Right Thing from Disney's Frozen 2 for this month. The lyrics are heartbreakingly beautiful and instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved and lost. If you can (and only if you can), read them in one go at the bottom of this post. The message is simple and achievable however new you are to grief. It validates the pain and this is so important. We grieve because we loved, and he is worth every tear that I cry. But this song also has the advice I will follow this Christmas season to keep all that threatens to overwhelm me at bay: "just do the next right thing."

For those with widowed friends, I hope you can understand how to be with them at this time. Lower your expectations of them and open your heart to what you can do to support and love them. It is as simple as listening to them without offering solutions, thoughts and advice. They are your solutions, your thoughts and your advice, not theirs. They need to find their own way to be and if you want to help, this is where you can meet them. Talk to them about their loved one and say their loved one's name. Share your memories and your feelings, and don't be afraid of tears. Remember: "Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness"*. Remind them that they grieve because they loved. If your loved one was worth loving, then they are worth grieving for too. Give in to it and sit with it. If you can do this for a grieving friend, then your wings will be unfolding once again from your shoulder blades**. It really is that beautiful and a true gift to give this Christmas.

"...I won't look too far ahead

It's too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath

This next step

This next choice is one that I can make..."

I'm not strong enough yet to re-watch Frozen 2 this Christmas. Tears poured out of me in the cinema when it came out during the summer after Tom died. I know I felt Anna's grief too intensely - she's a cartoon character for goodness' sake! but I cried a lot in the summer of 2019 and know that I could easily again. I hold myself back from giving into that grief waterfall. I do this every day. Another lesson the last three and a half years has taught me.

I want to check in with boys' grief this month and the picture book I share with them is The River by Tom Percival. The reason for the main character's grief is too subtle for Sam to notice yet, but Daniel and Matthew see straight away that the river is a metaphor for grief felt after the little boy's dog dies. Sam tells me that the river is like feelings, he just didn't notice the empty dog bed as the trigger for the river freezing. I ask them all about the past year and how it's been for them. Their responses amaze me. I'm so proud of their hearts and love their ability to talk about how they feel. I will ask them to choose what they would like to decorate this year: a jam jar to put a nightlight in, a decoration to hang on our Christmas tree or a stone to throw into a river or the sea with a message on for their daddy. We will wrap up warm and walk by water this Christmas to talk about all we have experienced, achieved and felt in 2022. And it's been a lot! 2022 has been a good year. We have all made new friends, really good friends, to walk alongside us on this path of life. And we have done a lot, including seeing West End shows, going to football matches (women's and NFL!), having a sleepover at the Natural History Museum and even seeing WWE live at the O2! I know! We actually saw Roman Reigns and Drew Macintyre! We have been abroad on incredible holidays - the kind that we will always remember, thanks to the company Tom worked for - and we have lost hours in a second-hand book barn in Somerset and slid in thick, black Norfolk mud! Tom would have loved it all! I have to believe that he is somehow still with us in some way my human brain can't truly comprehend. Dr John Wilson posted on Twitter this month: "your lost loved ones live on in your cells, in your DNA" in reference to Mary-Frances O'Connor's words from The Grieving Brain: "Being loved and loving them back, releases brain chemicals that change your genes. Love actually, physically changes you." Tom is no longer with us physically, but he is with us in our DNA so all we plan, all we will do, will have him at the very heart and soul.

To help me share this message of life's journey with the boys we look at Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury, the book Santa bought Daniel last year. This year I bought myself its sequel: The Journey. These books are magical and I want the boys to feel as moved as I am as we turn each page, feeding on the beauty of Norbury's illustrations and the simplicity of his words and messages inspired by Buddhist philosophy and spirituality. Quite simply, page 12 of the first book sums it up when Big Panda asks Tiny Dragon which is more important, the journey or the destination? Tiny Dragon answers, "the company". Both books cover a journey, the first over a year of seasons and the second in search of Tiny Dragon feeling complete. But it's not the main storyline which makes these books so special, it's in all the individual pages and moments experienced by the friends. The Buddhist philosophy through Norbury's craftsmanship re-frames feelings and experiences common to us all, in this thing called life. One moment I would like to share (there are so many, it's hard to choose!), is in The Journey. Tiny Dragon holds his chipped teacup up and says, "I feel a bit like this cup... I've been through a tough time and I feel like I've been damaged. but these little cracks... are what let the light shine through." It makes me think of the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by using seams of gold: kintsugi. Like a metaphor for life, nothing is ever truly broken and in fact becomes more precious because of being damaged. Grief does actually change us and we do feel broken but it's not a feeling I want to always carry. Like Tiny Dragon, I need to accept how I feel and then reframe the experience as not being broken, but as now being able to see the light, "the gold", in my life.

Wherever you are on life's journey - if you're reading this as new to grief or time hardened by it, or if you have never experienced it but know that one day you will, and you will - I hope that my thoughts and ideas have helped. Collins English Dictionary defines the word 'life' as the period of time between birth and death. Life and death, there is no one without the other and however hard we ignore the one we don't speak of and try to run from it, the more we head towards it in fear. It's inevitable, it's the only certainty of life and so to live should be to accept death and not be afraid of it and how it makes us feel. We cannot choose how we die or when it will be, but what we can choose is how we live. This Christmas is our fourth without Tom, that's one more without him than with him now for Sam. I will make it happy and I will be happy, but sadness and tears will come and that's ok. The words below of The Next Right Thing remind me of early early grief. I have learnt now to hold back from giving into it as completely as I once did, I know how much energy it takes from me. But they are the cracks that will always be there. Time has taught me the art of kintsugi and now those cracks are held together with gold. That gold is the jigsaw of many different kinds of support I have received, it is all the things I have read and shared, and all the new memories I make now with my boys. Tom will always be my heart and I live this life for the both of us. When he asked me to marry him 17 years ago, I replied by asking if he was my happily ever after. He answered, "I'd like to be." I know now that I was his and that in many ways, is much more of a privilege. I was his happily ever after and I know that he was truly and completely loved. Life and death, love and grief, they only exist because of the other. To live well is to first understand that and then to choose the next small step to the do the next right thing.

I wish you all a gentle Christmas time this year, and thank you for reading my words.


The Next Right Thing song lyrics:

"I've seen dark before

But not like this

This is cold

This is empty

This is numb

The life I knew is over

The lights are out

Hello, darkness

I'm ready to succumb

I follow you around

I always have

But you've gone to a place I cannot find

This grief has a gravity

It pulls me down

But a tiny voice whispers in my mind

You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

And do the next right thing

Can there be a day beyond this night?

I don't know anymore what is true

I can't find my direction, I'm all alone

The only star that guided me was you

How to rise from the floor

When it's not you I'm rising for?

Just do the next right thing

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can to do

The next right thing

I won't look too far ahead

It's too much for me to take

But break it down to this next breath

This next step

This next choice is one that I can make

So I'll walk through this night

Stumbling blindly toward the light

And do the next right thing

And with the dawn, what comes then?

When it's clear that everything will never be the same again

Then I'll make the choice

To hear that voice

And do the next right thing"

Kristen Bell, from Frozen 2

* "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" by Charlie Mackesy; see June's blog

** Like Mina's in "Skellig" by David Almond; see February's blog

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