With the holidays swiftly approaching, most of us will fall back on “traditions” to mark the festive days. There are special activities (“The Saturday after Thanksgiving we cut down a Christmas tree!”), specific foods that must be prepared (“We have to have Aunt Frieda’s kugel!”), movies, and music. Because the winter holidays have a religious tone, lots of us will wander back to houses of worship for the comfort of familiar rituals. But for many of us, this Thanksgiving, this Hanukkah, this Christmas, will be vastly and critically different: this will be the first year without someone we love.
When it comes to holidays and grief, there is a great deal of helpful information out there: blogs and newsletters and books. Everyone will handle things differently and with varying degrees of success: carrying on as it nothing has changed, doing something altogether different, ignoring the day completely. If you don’t really care for the holidays it may not be an issue; if you love the holidays, it’s a nightmare.
No one cared about Christmas more than my sister in law’s mom, Louise—unless it was my dad, Jim. Louise was an artist whose creative eye made for an exquisite tree and lovely decorations throughout her home in the Tucson foothills. My dad had always loved Christmas and delighted in the lights and ornaments. Both of them found magic in the season and their daughters (my sister in law, Christia, and I) caught the same holiday bug. We had many pleasant holiday gatherings as a group, even though my brother Tom (a newspaper man) usually had to leave early for work.
Then in November 1997, our family was changed forever: Frank, my sister in law’s dad, died on November 9th of pulmonary fibrosis; he had been ill for some time. My father, Jim, died on the 21st, less than a month after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Any time there is a death in the family, it is devastating; when there are two so close together it is a disaster. Frank and Louise had met as children; my own parents had been married for more than forty years. The two couples were good friends and my brother was very close to his father in law. It was, to put it mildly, a terrible time.
After my dad’s funeral (Thanksgiving weekend), the prospect of Christmas entered the picture. Just thinking about trimming a Christmas tree was upsetting. My dad was all over the Christmas decorations my mother had: he had purchased most of them, and put them up for years and years. It would be too difficult for my mom and for me to dig into those boxes. I did not want to ignore Christmas, but I had no idea what to do. Each night on my way home from work, I would stare out the window of the bus and look at that dark December sky and feel… rotten.
One more bleak night I was staring out the window, at all that dark nothingness, feeling blue. And then I saw it: a star. A big, white, five-pointed star, set back from the highway out among the trees. It gleamed at me, and I stared at it until it fell from sight. And that is when it hit me: my father’s death did not have anything to do with Christmas. People get sick and bad things happen but that does not have anything to do with Christmas. The miracle that Christmas represents is so much bigger than that. It transcends our pain and our fear. It is a never ending symbol of hope.
I made up my mind right there on that bus that my mother and I were going to have a nice Christmas. Some friends loaned us a potted plant and we placed it in the entryway of Mom’s house; we strung it with lights and filled it with little toys. Her neighbors came and caroled for us. We went to Mass on Christmas morning, and had dinner with extended family that afternoon. We talked about my father and Frank and I would be lying if I said it was the best Christmas we ever had. But it was all right. We made it through and we were OK, just as Tom and Christia, and Christia’s brother Eddie, and Louise were OK. Not fabulous—but OK. And that was enough.
My mother and I had many lovely holidays after that first difficult Christmas; each one was a little different from the last. (We even spent one Christmas Eve in the ER.) We lost Eddie in 2001 and Louise and my mother, June, both died in 2015. Tom and Christia live in Arizona now and I am in Seattle; we celebrate Christmas in our respective homes. But we have found ways to honor the day. (I will be working at the Washelli Columbarium.) And while they may not be the ways in which many other people choose to celebrate, they work for us. That is what matters.
If this is your first major holiday without someone, I can promise you that things will never be the same. They can’t be. But I can also promise you this: holidays don’t have to be miserable. Whatever you do, whether it is a spaghetti feed or watching movies all day or feeding the homeless or getting a tattoo, celebrate in the way that makes the most sense and works out best for you and yours. Do something. Find joy. In the end, it is the spirit of the day that counts.
And if you pass by Evergreen Washelli, stop in and say hello. I will be at the Columbarium until 5.~~Mary Gibbons