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‘Nothing comes close to the pain you experience that first Christmas, without the one you have lost’


By Niamh Ennis
20th Dec 2023
‘Nothing comes close to the pain you experience that first Christmas, without the one you have lost’

Whenever I get asked what was the hardest part of my grief journey, I don’t hesitate with my answer. It was Christmas. Hands down. Nothing comes close to the pain you experience, that first Christmas, without the one you have lost. All around you people are talking about families with the direct inference that family equals happiness. But for anyone looking at an empty chair around the Christmas table that’s not always the case.

It’s important to note, from the off, that when I’m talking about loss, I’m not just referring to death, it can refer to loss of any nature; including loss of friendships, relationships, money, health or even your job. Anything that feels life changing, that you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for your life, qualifies.

When it comes to Christmas, it is this very personal reflection that can get lost. There is an unwritten, universal agreement that Christmas is the happiest time of the year, ergo, everyone should be happy.

Yet I still remember the pain of being forced to watch on, as the world appeared to rub my nose in it, just weeks after my fiancé died. I remember feeling some (totally unwarranted) deep disappointment that his friends were able to carry on and go to their Christmas work parties, as if nothing had happened. I can still feel that palpable level of anger I felt, that the world was still turning, as I drove past the packed pubs and restaurants of Dublin just weeks after he had died. What on earth were they all doing? Had nobody got the memo that everything had changed?

I also remember the huge effort my parents went to, in attempting to have a somewhat ‘normal’ Christmas day, and what kills me the most, even now writing this, is that I had no idea that this was also to be my very last Christmas with my gorgeous Dad. I often wonder had I known, would I have been able to muster up greater enthusiasm, or was it all too raw for me at the time? I guess I’ll never know.

The following Christmas, Mum and I just couldn’t face a Christmas at home with just the two of us, and so we naively thought it would be a great idea to escape and follow the sun. Arriving at our hotel in Gran Canaria, on Christmas Eve, I can still remember our astonishment when we were welcomed by the hotel staff, cheerfully wearing Santa hats and grimacing while listening to the Christmas carols being piped throughout the hotel, on a loop, even around the pool. Feliz Navidad, indeed!

A few short years later, and Mum was gone too, and honestly that was me finished with Christmas. I couldn’t take any more. Christmas without family just couldn’t be Christmas. I was officially disengaging. But that’s the thing, there is no hiding place, nowhere you can go and wait for it all to be over.

People say Christmas is just a day, and it is, but for me the hardest part was always the lead up. The weeks of non-stop chatter about Christmas, the planning, the incessant advertising and let’s be honest from Hallowe’en on, it is pretty full on and next to impossible to ignore.

By then, my future husband, also had other ideas. He chose Christmas to propose to me, so that together, we would create new memories around this time of year. On the beach in Ballymoney, Wexford, that Christmas Eve morning, we started doing just that.

Slowly over the past few years, I’ve learned to begin to enjoy this time of year again. Yet the memories of Christmases past, are never far from my mind. The truth is, I just don’t want them to be either. I choose now to keep some of my family traditions very much alive, baking my Mum’s Christmas Cake, procuring real holly with berries just like Dad loved doing so much, playing the Christmas songs that they both loved and placing photos of them on the tree just to have them close.

While Christmas will never be the same again it doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Different but good. So, this Christmas, I want to invite you to think about who do you know that has had a difficult year? Perhaps someone you know has experienced loss of some kind, it could be a job, a friendship, a relationship or the death of someone close to them. No matter how they might appear to be on the outside, or how convincing they are that they are coping, just reach out to them and ask them how they are doing; let them know you know it’s not a happy time for everyone.

Let them know that you are thinking of them, that you recognise what a tough time of the year this is for them, acknowledge their loss and let them feel seen and supported. Give them permission to share how they are feeling. It will mean so much to them.

Try not to assume the belief that sadness fades at Christmas, if anything it is further accentuated at this time of year more than any other. This year with all that is happening in the world that couldn’t be more true. There is so much sadness and suffering in the world that we can’t but feel affected by it.

Guard your hearts and give thanks for everything and everyone that you have in your life this year. Pray to whoever you believe in, for those who aren’t so lucky and don’t forget those who find this time of year hard. Let them know you are there, ready to listen should they want to talk, and hope to god, that they won’t have to do the same for you next year.

This Christmas mind yourself and mind one another.

Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Change & Transformation Coach and Author of Get Unstuck  who through her private practice, writings, programmes, workshops and podcast has inspired and helped thousands of people to make significant changes in their lives. She is an accredited Personal, Leadership & Executive Coach and the Lead Coach in the IMAGE Business Club. Niamh is introducing a selection of new ways you can work with her in 2024 – including her half day ‘Quick Fix’, a full day ‘Get Clarity’ and is also currently accepting applications for her  flagship ‘3 Month Bespoke 121 Coaching Programme called  Strategy Meets Soul, starting February 2024. Email [email protected] for info. Instagram @1niamhennis.