Grief and Hope at Christmas Time

I realise most of the recent posts are concerning dealing with grief through Christmas, or the holiday season. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to bear with me for the time being. It’s hard to explain how empty and lost I’ve been feeling these last few weeks. I openly admit that I’m procrastinating about facing the hurdles I know are in front of me. I don’t know what to expect, but as Gary keeps telling me, “Don’t expect the worse, because you’ll get it.” He keeps urging me to aim for something better, to look for the happy moments and grasp hold of them instead of wallowing in sadness.

And he’s right. If I prepare myself for sorrow and sadness, I’ll miss the happier moments altogether and Christmas will be unbearable. I might feel guilty if I do manage to cope, because this is the first year without Barry and I shouldn’t be feeling anything other than devastation. But that’s my heart talking. My head tells me something else completely.

As a mother, I try to guide Daniel through this time with:

“Barry would want us to celebrate.”
“We cannot forget Christmas forever.”
“Barry chose to leave this world and we have to choose to go on without him. Barry would not be angry with that decision.”
“We can remember Barry in special ways, we can start new traditions, and he will never be forgotten.”
“Let’s make this Christmas tree as beautiful as Barry would have wanted it so that he can look down from up above and smile.”

My head is in control when I’m dealing with Daniel’s grief, but my heart takes over when I’m dealing with my own. I say the words and I mean them, but I find it hard to act on them, so how can I expect Daniel to.

We have to take one step at a time.

Then I saw the following message written by an unknown bereaved mother eight years after the passing of her child. The description of her early grief echoes mine. Her words offer me hope. Maybe my family can get through this year…and the years to follow.

Once again, it’s that time of year. Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and Christmas is only a few steps behind. Will this year be different than the last seven? Will I find the magic again? Wait. Let me revise that question: Did I ever feel the magic?

As a bereaved parent, I have experienced only two holiday seasons. While I have physically lived through 49 hell-a-days, emotionally, there have been only two: The ones before and the ones after Jason’s death. The two categories are distinctly different.

If memory serves me correctly, which God knows it doesn’t always do, I spent the first 42 years focused on material issues. What would I get? What did I want? What would make me the happiest child in the whole world? As I grew older and had my own little family, I spent the next 22 years asking myself what I would get them. What did they want? What would make them love me more? How would I manage to pay for all of it? I always felt there was something missing . . . but didn’t really have the time or interest to find that missing something. Besides, why borrow trouble? Each year, by the time I realized that something was missing, the decorations were packed in their boxes and the kids had gone back to school. I could always find the magic next year.

In 1996, Jason died. Suddenly, my life ended its forward march and everything I had ever regarded as important became nonsense. My heart was not simply broken—it was ripped into shreds, emptied of what had fueled it over the span of my life. I had no hope of waiting for it to heal and had to face the reality that only a total reconstruction would suffice. I would have to create a new heart . . . from scratch.

That first fall was difficult. I was still numb, still cushioned from reality, but the pain of Jason’s death was beginning to seep in. Then it was Halloween, and the horror of what had happened was upon me. Thanksgiving came with Christmas on its tail, bringing an empty chair, an unbroken wishbone, and silence where laughter had once prevailed.

I was sure it could not get any worse, but life always surprises us. The holidays of 1997 and 1998 were devastating. The numbness that had protected me that first season was gone. Reality had arrived, and I could not escape it. I would never again see Jason walk through our front door with that grin that always made me nervous, tracking snow across my “freshly waxed for the holidays” floor. I would never again buy two of everything for Jason and his twin brother. I would never again . . . enjoy the holidays . . . or life.

Years four through seven, we bought gifts for needy families, hung Jason’s stocking right beside the rest of ours, illuminated special candles to include him in our celebrations, and smiled cheerfully at everyone who offered us their joy filled Merry Christmas. And as I spread my Christmas cheer and goodwill toward men, I had only one thought in my mind. It became my mantra: “If I can just make it through December, I will be okay.” I was no longer focused on the material side of the season. I was no longer focused on the season at all. I wanted it over.

And now, here I am, at year eight. My eighth season of joy, my eighth year of decking the halls, my eighth year of Jason’s physical absence. You probably think I am going to tell you that this year will be no different from the last seven. You might even anticipate that I am going to tell you that it never gets better, that there is no such thing as healing, and that grieving parents will always be bitter and angry, especially during the times when families everywhere celebrate the season of giving. Wrong. But don’t feel bad; this revelation has totally shocked me also.

A few days ago, on a cold morning in October, I woke up and was amazed to see that it was snowing. Overnight, the world had gone from brown to pure glistening white. It was beautiful. Later that day, I heard someone in my home actually humming Christmas carols. How dare they!? But . . . I was alone. It was me. That evening, I spent an hour printing up a beautiful green and red Christmas “wish list” with graphics! That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Suddenly, it hit me. And no matter how guilty I feel in acknowledging it, I have to tell you. I am looking forward to the holidays. Oh . . . my . . . GOD. How can this be? Why is this happening?

Well, after much pondering, I think I know why. I think I spent 42 holidays looking through a lens that only focused on black and white, on the physical, on that which can be seen and physically felt. The lavishly wrapped gifts, excessive food, amount of money spent, and glittering (sometimes gaudy) lights on the tree. The next seven were spent looking through a lens that was distorted and scarred by grief. I focused on what was missing rather than on what was still here. I think I wanted it that way.

But now, I feel I’ve learned how to not only endure—but to enjoy—a memory that can only be defined as bittersweet. I’ve come to appreciate that feeling emotional is really about feeling impassioned. And I think this year, as the songs start to play on the radio and the cards begin filling our mailbox, I will choose a different lens, a lens that captures that which we cannot see or physically touch. A lens that goes beyond.

Not everything will change. I will still hang Jason’s stocking beside ours, buy gifts for the needy, light candles in his memory, and all of the other things that have made the last seven years bearable. But this year, I hope to do these things with joy rather than with bitterness and sorrow. This year, I want to grasp the hand of a homeless mother, kiss the cheek of a newborn baby, and hold a kitten while it plays in the place where kittens go to dream. I want to watch Santa as he holds wiggly toddlers on his lap. I want to sing “Silent Night” on a snowy night in mid-December when it feels as if all the world is sleeping. I want to feel the Christmas that we cannot see.

This year, I want to remember who I really am. I want to enjoy the months ahead. Not because I need to or because someone says it’s time to—but because—well, because I can. This year, I want to find the magic before it is time to put away the boxes. And I won’t stop searching until I find it.

Merry Christmas to you and yours . . . Believe in magic, And always . . . expect miracles.

~ author unknown ~

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8 responses

  1. Karen, please don’t apologise for writing about the things which you are feeling right now – this is the space where you can write whatever you want!

    The head versus heart thing seems to be common to the bereaved. From my own standpoint, the most comforting things people have told me is when they manage to speak to my heart, which isn’t often. Most people says things and they speak to my head – and it’s like preaching to the converted and has very little effect.

    As I’ve been reading your last few posts, I have thought to myself about new traditions. I would like to celebrate my son’s birthday next summer and every year by having some sort of gathering, but I have to wait for it to come around to know if I’m able to do that. Maybe it will take a few years.

    The text you posted was very interesting. It’s always good to get the perspective of years gone by from another bereaved parent. That’s one of the things I find helpful in reading blogs – it’s sometimes like looking into the future, there are all types of possible outcomes.

  2. I agree with your speaking to the heart comments. Sometimes it does happen and those words mean so much.

    This year we did nothing for Barry’s birthday, but it was only four weeks after we lost him and we were still in deep shock at that stage.

    Next year I’m not sure what we’ll do, but we will do something. I’ve already decided that for his birthday in 2008 (when he would have turned 21), I’ll be releasing 21 yellow balloons with messages inside.

    I know you’ll think of something appropriate to celebrate your son’s birthday. {{hugs}}

  3. Our son took his own life last December 6 2008 while our little family waited to see him graduate from college, but he wasn’t there ……… my husband went in his place and made me wait in the car. He found him, I screamed and screamed, and still sometimes do when no one else is home. If you had asked me at 3 pm to write 10,000 things that might happen to our family, THAT would not have been on it. When we came home the next morning, the tree was just up, the stockings were on the kitchen table, “stuff” was ready to be done — we were always “over the top” with decorating, cooking, fun …. just six days before we had a wonderful thanksgiving holiday. as our oldest son has said, his brother has now ruined both thanksgiving and christmas for all of us forever. we are searching for something to do this year – my husband doesn’t want to end up just sitting and staring at each other while our other two sons and their families have holiday. last christmas, we tried just to have dinner at our son’s home, but left in tears …. nothing I read helps me. counsellors are of no use. faith is gone. how do we survive thsi?

  4. My heartfelt condolences. I don’t think your son would intentionally ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas. I doubt he gave those things a thought when he made his decision. Just as my son didn’t give his father a thought when he ended his life on his father’s birthday. Our sons were focused inwards at the turmoil they felt and I hope your family will be able to forgive your son and find a way to celebrate those two occasions in the future. It won’t happen this year or next, but given time it will happen if you allow it too, if you make a special effort to make them special again. It will be hard, but it can improve. My family is testament to that. Christmas was a special time of year for us. After Barry’s death, it was difficult and filled with sadness, but I didn’t want to continue in that way and now, although my thoughts are constantly on Barry, I am able to smile and ensure my family (and I) enjoy a family day together. Just give it time.

  5. Carol,
    Please accept my very sincere sympathy on the death of your son last year. The pain you describe sounds so familiar, down to “faith is gone”, which cuts deeply, as it used to be my strength in tough times.

    Karen is right, Christmas and festive times can still be celebrated, but from now on, not spontaneously as before. We now do so with effort, for the sake of other loved ones. It’s emotionally draining at times,another part of our legacy as grieving parents.
    Take care.

  6. Hi Ive been browsing here and came across your blog, my younger brother few months ago and I’m so worried about the health of my mother, she took it really hard… she just been out from the hospital due to high blood and stressed. Reading this blog gives me hope that someday she will learn to accept it, I want to be with her to help her get thru it but Im here at another country and Im married. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, God Bless and Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. This Christmas and Thanksgiving is sad, as my Great Niece Katie died Thanksgiving Day. I live alone and the loss of Katie and my little dog has saddened the holidays for her family and me.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. It does get easier in time, but nothing will take the loss away completely. Just remember to be kind to yourself.

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