(On grief and loss at the holidays)
Who can deny the celebratory spirit in the air as the holidays approach? At least in the modern western world, there is more music, colour, food & drink, parties, opportunities to give to multiple causes, festive presentations and traditions as varied as the numbers of families that participate. But if we´ve lived long enough, we become aware as well of an invisible yet palpable sadness underlying it all. Why such juxtaposition of emotions?
This year (as well as every year), many people are alone and have no one to celebrate with. Others are living a very difficult season in some arena of their life and cannot embrace the joy. There are the poor & disadvantaged who find the typical expressions of celebration beyond their means. Many of us reading this live in lands or work with those who live in lands where Christmas is a non-event. We are far from loved ones and many external “environment enhancers” that remind & prepare us for the holidays. There are a myriad of reasons - from estranged relationships & divided families to illness to distance to finances - that dampen the holidays for many.
But these days I’m thinking about those who are grieving the loss of a person this Christmas. There are people all around us who are living their “First Christmas”: the First Christmas without someone dear to them. Their First Christmas with that empty ache, a place unfilled at the table, a void that is unquenchable, memories that hurt and well-meaning people completely forgetful about that important loss. The entire house – and season – reverberates with loneliness & melancholy. This is the underlying soulful tune being played alongside the joyful carols throughout the holidays.
My “First Christmas” came in 1997. My youngest brother was killed in a car accident that September. He was only 30 years old. I was living in Argentina at the time with my husband & our two small girls. I had travelled to California for the funeral and although I had experienced sadness and loss to some degree in other ways in my life, for the first time, grief appeared in living colour. Actually, it didn’t just appear - it invaded. And it marked my life forever.
Even though I had been living overseas for some time, and therefore was used to going two years at a time without seeing him, after his death he was everywhere. For months I thought I saw him walking down the street or coming out of a store or hanging with a group of young people in a plaza. Young people don’t just die before Christmas! They are supposed to outlast their parents! But he didn’t. I grieved him being gone. I grieved for my Mom, for my Dad. I grieved for his girlfriend. I grieved for the whole family. And I felt very, very far away. But grief doesn’t respect kilometers. It doesn’t respect age. It doesn’t respect culture or economic status or your marriage or your role as a parent. It doesn’t respect how mature you are or even how spiritual you are. It just comes. And it lingers…at the holidays, at birthdays, and at other special days that are part of your memory with that person.
As the years pass, there is a strange phenomenon with grief that recurs at the holidays. It is resurrected. There is something so collective, so relational about the holiday season that even after you make it through the First one, every successive holiday that brings any reminder of that family member or friend, resurrects sadness. Sometimes it comes upon you through other unrelated things – you find yourself “crying for no reason”. You may not even put the pieces together but I have found that much of it traces back to resurrected grief over that person.
Seven years later after having moved to Spain, I had another even more cruel “First Christmas”. I lost my Mom, in the same month as my brother, but this time to a suicide. I was devastated. Beyond the sadness was the terrible guilt, with its choking questions and “what if’s”. I developed a fear of depression as it had played a role in her death. My role as the eldest daughter was complicated by living a continent away. My Mom had been renting and we had to get everything out quickly. This forced me to decide many things before I was ready. When I returned to Spain, exhausted and grief-stricken, the festivities arrived quickly and were completely overwhelming. I wanted to scream at the world, “How can you be celebrating?! Don’t you know my Mom is gone?!” I had to press on as a mother myself and enter reluctantly into some of our traditions for the sake of my own 3 kids. But there was no joy that year for me. Any half-hearted joy expressed was purely for my kids’ sake.
The ensuing Christmases have been slowly, but steadily, more merry. But for me, Christmas changed forever in 1997. Then it was irrevocably branded in 2004. Certain elements of my Christmas Past are gone and my mood is wistful this time of year. I miss receiving Mom’s “perfect” gifts. I miss my brother’s relationship to his nieces. I miss my Mom’s exuberant, child-like excitement at Christmas. I worry about my Dad, my other surviving brother, my Mom’s siblings. There is gratitude for memories sweet. And there is regret for things not lived. There is melancholy and there is love. They are my companions at Christmastime.
This holiday season, may we all be aware of the underlying bittersweet carol that plays all around us – and reach out to touch a heart in need.
*If it would help you or someone you know to read a more complete version of my journey with grief, “Grief in the First Person”, please write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
**If you or someone you know have recently lost someone you love, I recommend this small but powerful series in the healing process: Special Care Series by Doug Manning
Photo by: Samurajii