I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)
But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.
THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)
THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)
THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)
They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.
Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.
Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.
And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)
Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband, our 21st without Mom.
At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.
For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.
In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)
I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.
This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).
If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.
If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.
*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.
They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.
I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!