Grief and Christmas - Lessons inspired by Ellie
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Christmas can be a really rough time of year, especially if you are feeling the aftermath of a loss. Losses of all sorts affect us deeply including loss of relationships, jobs, identity, purpose, and of course of loved ones. All of these losses and the myriad of others can come to the fore to bite us around this time of year, when the pressure is on from our capitalist structures to eat, drink and be merry in these seemingly perfectly formed lives we’re meant to have. Smacking us in the face by Christmas TV and other media all the way from Halloween to the end of the year. No wonder we’re all exhausted! There is something quite unique though about the experience of Christmas following a bereavement. Last year, November and December were pretty horrendous after whizzing from London to Penarth, Wales to be with my dear friend Ellie to spend time with her during a short illness due to pancreatic cancer. She died on Christmas Eve.
She was the Aunt of one of my best friends, who I had known for a number of years but felt like she had always been in my life. Ellie was an incredible woman, strong and independent minded, quick witted, kind and always had an open house. Over the years, she had worked as a teacher in a special needs school, was the first female Customs and Exiles Officer, worked for Camden Council as a licensing officer (which meant she got into all of the coolest clubs and was always on the guest list for the best artists) and for many many years an extremely talented and highly regarded comic letterer, particularly for 2000 AD. She had a special gift of connecting with people and in turn making you feel special. She was my dear friend, like second family, a party fiend (even in her 60s), interested in people, culture, art, a lover of comedy, cake and dance music. I always loved hearing her stories about the different twists and turns she experienced in her life, especially the stories of her legendary parties in the 90s. Ellie was special to all who knew her. She lit up a room.
Finding joy in the small things
What struck me most about Ellie was her positive and happy demeanour, although like all of us she had her moments! She taught me to look at the bright side of things whenever possible, even in the darkest moments, even when she was dying in her hospice bed. This energy she possessed was particularly imparted to me when after a break up of a long term relationship when she welcomed me to live in her home for a few months. I was a total wreck when I was there, my whole life had been turned upside down. I had just embarked upon a career change, I had moved out of the flat I lived in with my ex partner, and I felt entirely and completely lost, without any idea of who I was or how I was going to get through the next moment. Ultimately she picked me up and put me back together again. On the days when I was sad and could barely eat her words of wisdom were:
“Try and eat a bit of a banana, watch some comedy, and then put some happy music on and dance with your hands in the air.”
I have never forgotten it, it is what keeps me going in those moments when I feel all at sea and don’t know where to turn to next. Sometimes we do need to find the joy in those moments of challenge and difficulty, and can remind ourselves that whilst all of our feelings are valid we are also allowed to look after ourselves and to find slivers of joy, even if it is just dancing like a maniac in your living room to Born Slippy, by Underworld. If you find yourself struggling this Christmas for whatever reason, try and find something that is just for you to connect with yourself. It doesn’t matter what it is, (the banana, comedy and dancing isn’t a prescription but I thoroughly recommend it!) If I have learnt anything in 2020, connection has to start with ourselves, to be our own best friends first, and to figure out who this new version of ourselves is.
Give as much as you receive
Ellie had an innate ability to connect with people. She curated a collective of all sorts of people as far flung as from Mexico, Japan and India. She had many of her extended network living in her old house in Dollis Hill. In fact, she rescued a group of Indian young people once, who were essentially being treated like modern slaves having been brought to the UK and tricked by their “employer” and she took them in and got them their passports back! Ellie was an extremely generous person, in her wit, her hospitality, and her listening ear. She was always there for her friends and always made time for you. I hope that I can be as generous in that sharing of myself with other people to make them feel good and pass on that positive energy. On one of my visits whilst she was in the hospice, she shared something her Mum, Amy Hewitt (1909 - 1988) passed down to her:
“If you can’t help someone then walk away, because you’re no good at all. But I think you’ll find you can help most people.”
I found it such a curious phrase at first, but I really love it. Being open to helping others in whatever way, shape or form helps us just as much as it does them. We can all find purpose and connection in helping others, whether that is through a shared smile with a stranger, a note to say I’m thinking of you, letting someone live in your house when they’re broken, or bringing joy through shared laughter. A sense of belonging and human connection is vital in our lives, that sense of “I have found my tribe”, and I truly think that Ellie managed that with most people. My mantra is to be more Ellie.
In the work I do around loss, I have been heartened to see that in our first year in The Loss Project, the biggest thing that has made a difference for people who are bereaved, but also who have experienced other significant life losses is connection. There is a craving for a sense of belonging, understanding and human connection, even if it’s only for an hour through Zoom. I want to take this a step further though and highlight, as is so beautifully put by our friends Camerados, who say “If someone is having a tough time they become devoured by their own problems so watch what happens when after a bit of sympathy you then ask them to look out for YOU, to do YOU a favour or give YOU advice. They come out of their own problems, they feel trusted, talented and driven with a new purpose. They have something to offer.” I have seen this enacted and it is truly powerful stuff- try it, see what happens. I think this works both ways, if you can find a way to reach out and show kindness to someone, even if it's greeting a stranger in the street, notice how lifted that makes you feel, even for a small moment.
If you’re struggling this Christmas
I recognise, however, that this stuff is hard, there is no magic answer, and I do not share this in the spirit of being dismissive of how painful and overwhelming it is to be going through the aftermath of a significant loss of a loved one, especially at this time of year. But I do want to share that there is hope; you will do it in your own time, and your own way, but eventually you will find a way to navigate through it, even on the darkest of days. Ellie’s lessons of connecting with yourself and others, with a dose of generosity in her positivity and love has transformed my life even though like all of us, I am most definitely a work in progress. For anyone who needs some extra help this Christmas I’ve included some thoughts below:
You don’t have to do, be or feel any way other than you are. Just do you and try to alleviate any “I shoulds”. You just feel and be how you want to feel and be. There is no right or wrong way to do any of this. Allow yourself the space for whatever comes.
Find ways to remember them, this year I’ll be whatsapp video calling into the hospice Carols in Penarth and watching an episode of Idiot Abroad, which Ellie loved.
Make people aware who you might be spending time with over Christmas, that you might need time alone, time to feel sad, or you to drop out of plans at the last minute. That can help alleviate the pressure to feel like you should be acting or being a certain way, when you need to hide away for a little while.
Connect. If it is connecting with yourself, your memories, or those around you, try and find a way that works for you to show yourself some love. It’ll be like a little gift to yourself wrapped under the tree.
Check out The Grief Compass, downloadable for free from our shop. It’s designed by creative volunteers with lived experience to help you through the obstacle course that is grief with simple, nourishing. reflective exercises or join our next loss-themed spoon room on January 13th.
Need to talk but don’t want to share with people you know:
If you're struggling to deal with the grieving process over Christmas, you can call the Cruse National Helpline on 0808 808 1677, see here for opening hours. Alternatively you can message a trained grief counsellor using the CruseChat service 9am - 9pm Monday - Friday.
In memory of Ellie De Ville (1947 - 2019), my dear friend and beautiful soul who I miss terribly but feel so lucky to have had in my life.
This blog was written for the wonderful Connection Fest, a special month-long festival in December, exploring connection and what it means to us, especially at this time. Check out the website here: https://www.soulsurvivalguide.co/programme