real life

Heartbreaking: coping with the loss of a parent at Christmas time.

Until I was eight, all my Christmases were as perfect as any child could wish. Like millions of children, I left snacks out for Santa and went to bed determined to stay awake and catch a glimpse of him, only to wake with a pillowcase of presents at the foot of my bed.

My father was a minister, so he assisted with both the midnight and 5am church services, then came home and launched straight into our family festivities. He must have been exhausted, but I never detected anything less than full enthusiasm from him.

An only child, I was close to both my parents, but I adored my father. He was the playful parent, the one who let me set up a dolls’ tea party at our dining table just before dinnertime, who climbed the monkey bars with me, who taught me to ride a bike, who read me stories and tucked me in at night.

My mother was the organiser, the one who packed my lunches, drove me to and from school, who kept me occupied all day during school holidays, who insisted I pack up my dolls’ tea party so she could lay the table for dinner. Not that my father was at all irresponsible or lazy, but he and I were two of a kind – impractical dreamers, obsessed with books.

A running joke in our family was that once my father and I had each received a book for Christmas, the tree ceremony would grind to a halt as we both lost ourselves in the pages while my mother – a less keen reader – waited patiently for us to resurface.

Mileta and her father on Christmas Day. Image supplied.

In November of 1983, my father was killed in a traffic accident. That Christmas, my mother and I were both in the numb, dazed state that follows grief’s first wild outpourings. My only memories of that day take place at my grandmother’s house. Most details are blurry, but my overwhelming impression is of going through the motions – lunch, presents – because we didn’t know what else to do.


At a level I couldn’t articulate, I felt it would have been less depressing to just cancel Christmas that year altogether, but for my mother’s sake I pantomimed happiness as I opened my gifts, knowing how hard she was working to maintain her own false cheer.

This may seem unusually perceptive for a child that age, but the previous month-and-a-half had intensified our already-close bond into an almost psychic sensitivity to each others' moods.

She gave me the nightlight I’d longed for, a Bradley doll lamp with a parasol, frilly pink crinoline and huge, drawn-on eyes. Another prize was a ‘Mr Mystery super-agent spy book’ that came with an ‘invisible ink’ pen.

Mileta and her parents

In my innocence, I thought the invisible ink would be invisible on everything and, unsupervised in the spare bedroom, promptly tried it out on my lamp doll’s eye. Of course this made the eye run, so that forever afterward she stared blindly out of the ruined left side of her face.

I expected my mother to be furious, but she was surprisingly calm about it. After the catastrophe we’d endured, I guess this minor accident barely registered. Forever after, whenever I looked at that lamp I recalled the guilt and failure of that Christmas day. Even now, my heart sinks when carols start piping out of shop speakers around November.

When I told my mother I was writing this, she sent me a text: “My most overriding memory of Christmas is a kind of out of body feeling of playing a part and not being a part of it. It was as though we were in a big emotional hole.” Until this conversation, we’d never spoken about that day – an indication of how deeply the experience gouged us both – and yet our perceptions were exactly the same.


To grieve is to be out of step with the world. After the rituals of death have been honoured, everyone else goes back to their normal lives while you go on stumbling through a fog, bewildered and fragile. This is even truer at Christmas, when cultural pressure to join in the collective merry-making is overwhelming. How many people who’ve recently lost a family member, partner or friend must be bracing themselves for the enforced joy of the ‘festive season’?

Mileta as a young girl at Christmas time

Over the years, my mother and I have built up new rituals to replace the ones we lost. Things have improved even more since my husband joined us. But Christmas in our family will always be constructed around an unspoken absence. That’s how it is when you lose a loved one – they never really leave you. Despite the pain this sometimes causes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Freelance journalist,  fiction writer and poet Mileta Rien teaches creative writing at SPAN Community House, reviews theatre and film for culture website artsHub, blogs at, and is currently working on a book of linked short stories. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and a ginger cat named Olive.