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Help! Orphan, 53, dreads Christmas

It's so hard for me. We always had a family Christmas and she was central to the day

December 12, 2013 | By:

In the first of a new series, our business and personal coach Keren Smedley addresses the issues of Generation high50. This month: how to cope with losing a parent. (Plus: ask Keren's advice)

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Will it be lonely this Christmas? Not if Angela brings her mum back to life in her memories. Photo from Corbis

Angela is feeling alone…

I lost my mother this year, and I’m really struggling with my feelings.

When I was nine, my father had a heart attack from which he fully recovered. He died suddenly when I was 16 and my brother was 12. My mother found it difficult to cope but over the months did so, and I saw her as a strong, capable, grown-up woman who I could depend on.

When her own father died 15 months later my mother sat on the floor and sobbed that she was an orphan. This was shocking to me and, I thought, a little mad.

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My very strong, kind, caring mother developed vascular dementia in her late seventies and slowly deteriorated until her death the month before her 86th birthday.

During her last two years, she lost all recognition of us and was unable to speak. In the last months she was really not able to function much at all.

When visiting her, even though there was no response – and rationally I knew ‘my mother’ was no longer present – she was still alive.

The day she died I too knew – as she in her time had done – that I was an orphan. Although I have a very loving husband, children and family, I felt lost and alone. It felt that there was no one there for me. No one who would love me unconditionally.

I found it hard when she died but I was doing OK until now. This time of year, Christmas, is so hard for me. We always had a family Christmas and she was central to the day.

Of course, she wasn’t there for the last couple of years – but I always felt that somehow she could be. Now I really don’t know how to manage.

I think, for me, the feelings are exacerbated by the fact that my birthday is on 23 December.  This will be the first year I know there can’t ever be a ‘Dear Daughter’ card on my mat again (even though there hasn’t been one for a while).  

How do I resolve my feelings and move on? 

Keren replies…

I am sorry you are finding it so difficult but it doesn’t surprise me. We are intrinsically attached to our mothers and it is a bond that we all have to sever to some extent as we grow up and mature.

Still, the sense of loss when we know they are no longer here is great. There is something very unsettling about a parent’s death, even if we ourselves are in our fifties.

Part of us feels that our parents are meant to be there for us forever, giving us unconditional love and attention, praising our successes, soothing our brows when we’re distressed and standing up for us whatever we do. In short, being there for us when we need them.

We hold on to that illusion long past our youth and who could say, hand on heart, that they don’t want their mum when they’re feeling low?

In 1969, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a seminal book, Death and Dying, in which she explained her five-stage grief model; that is, the processes people go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When we lose someone, she said, we follow this cycle.  

However, this is a generalised process, and the way we experience it will be different for everyone. As we are not two-dimensional people, we don’t go through it linearly.

We may go backwards and forwards at different times as we resolve our issues. We move at our own pace, sticking at one bit or another and going backwards as well as forwards.

There are some people who get more or less permanently stuck at a particular stage and never appear to move on. A typical example would be someone who remains angry that a loved one has died and the anger becomes part of who they are.

Others find themselves revisiting the cycle at certain times of year. For many of us, the anniversary of a death – even many years later – can be a time of vulnerability, when we find ourselves out of sorts.

Sometimes we are conscious why we are feeling down and other times we find ourselves baffled.

When that happens, it’s good to take a few minutes and see if you can find a connection. It is often to do with a past event. Once you are aware of this, you will be able to move on.

Angela, it sounds to me that this is happening to you when you think of Christmas and your birthday. Whenever anyone mentions anything to you that triggers your grief memory, it will jump you back into the old cycle. You’ll feel as if you’re there, reliving her death and all the sorrow floods back.

You have a choice to go back into the cycle or change the thoughts in your head.

What were the great things about your mother? What did she bring to Christmas and your life? 

Take a few minutes to write these down. Now read each one and take yourself back there to that moment.

Climb into the scene and enjoy it again. Do this for each situation. How are you feeling now? A little better, I hope?

But if you relive at least two events every day until Christmas, I think you will be amazed how good you may feel, and how your mother can be with you in spirit even if not in person.

If you have an issue for Keren, you can write to her at support@high50.com. Please put ‘Dear Keren’ in the subject line.