Thoughts on Grief, Part 1 can be found here.
“I wish Grandma was alive for Christmas,” my son said.
I looked up from checking his math homework. “I wish she was alive for every day,” I replied, reaching for his hand. And that’s grief: wanting something—someone—you can never have again.
After my mom passed away, I wanted so much to hide under the covers and will the world away. But that wouldn’t have worked for my family; they needed me. So I got up each morning and somehow made it through the day, showing myself, and my kids, that, while grief is real and hard, we have to keep going.
That “one foot in front of the other” strategy worked for a few months, but then the Christmas season arrived. And Christmas is something altogether different.
My mom was an enormous fan of Christmas. This was a woman whose Christmas decorations were legendary and whose family and friends still talk about the year she had Christmas toilet paper for her powder room. (“I got it on sale!” she would exclaim whenever anyone would bring it up, shaking her head as if to downplay how she always had every holiday detail covered.) Many Christmases, my brother and I would receive holiday decorations from her in the hopes that we, too, would share her Christmas fervor: Santa statues and buildings for a Victorian ceramic village to go under the tree, Lenox cookie jars and candle holders, holly trimmed plates and red tablecloths (though never did we receive Christmas toilet paper).
My mom’s cheerleading worked: Christmas is my favorite holiday. I love it all, but this year, a big part of me wanted to skip it. I can’t do that to my family, though. They need normalcy and routine now more than ever. I need that, too. How do we find our way through grief to celebrating the holiday? How do I help my kids face Christmas while grieving? Here’s how we’re going to try…
Acknowledge Everyone’s Feelings (in other words, cry if you want to)
Each December 1, a red basket of books, wrapped in cheerful Christmas paper, appears in my kitchen. It’s our countdown to the holiday: my children unwrap one book from that basket each day, and when the books are gone, it’s Christmas. This year, on day three of our countdown, my kids unwrapped a large, blue audio book. My daughter opened it up, and nothing happened.
“It’s broken, Mommy,” she wailed when the sound didn’t start.
I took the book and shook it (a classic fix-it technique), chastising myself for not checking the book before I wrapped it. Then I turned to the first page, and my mother’s voice suddenly started, beginning a story about Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.
I placed the book on my kitchen table and burst into tears.
My daughter and son stood on either side of me. “It’s Grandma,” said my son, his eyes wide and shining. Soon, he was crying and my daughter followed suit.
We listened to the entire book, our arms wrapped around one another, sniffling and turning each page cautiously. None of us wanted to reach the end. When it was done, I turned to my kids. “I had forgotten Grandma recorded this book for you,” I explained. “I miss her a lot.”
“I miss her, too,” said my son, putting his head on my shoulder.
“Me, too,” said my daughter, hugging us both.
We stood silently for a while, holding each other, each of us lost in our thoughts. While it had been jarring to hear my mom’s voice—after all, we’re so used to not hearing it—I was also struck by what a gift it was. The fact we each cried when we heard it was expected; our pain is too recent. And, that’s okay. We’re going to want to cry at times during the holiday, and acknowledging those feelings will be the right choice for us. We’ll make sure to talk about what’s going on, why we’re crying, and be there for one another when the sadness is great.
Be Prepared (or, things you think are safe, may not be)
After my kids opened my mom’s book, I was shaken all day. What other seemingly innocuous holiday activities would we encounter that would leave us in tears, acutely aware that this Christmas, our first without my mom, will not be the same as years past? We will find ourselves yearning for all those Christmases from before, when we were all together, when my mom was here.
I don’t know what will cause the sadness to swell this holiday season, but it could be anything. My plan is to expect these unexpected jolts of grief—both big and small—and to make sure my kids know that it’s normal to think about my mom and to have a lot of feelings about her. To help them, this Christmas, like I do every day, I will talk about my mom with my kids, my husband, and the rest of my family. This was Grandma’s, I’ll say, when I take out her Christmas ornaments to place on our tree. I’ll tell the kids stories about her, and I’ll listen when they are ready to share their memories of her.
Embrace the Holiday (yes, this means you really do need to pull out the decorations)
When I thought about ignoring Christmas, I heard my mom in my head, yelling at me to stop being ridiculous. It’s Christmas, she would have shouted. You don’t give up on Christmas!
I still wasn’t convinced. Then I found the Christmas presents she had purchased for my kids hidden in my basement. Included are Christmas music boxes, one for each of my children for the next three years. It was her tradition to give them each a music box for Christmas, and the fact she will be contributing to their collections for years to come is what finally made me realize that Christmas had to happen—no matter how sad we all were.
So, we decorated our house for the holiday and put up the tree. We used some of my mom’s Christmas collectibles around our home, and we put her Christmas welcome mat on our front stoop. We added her buildings to the Victorian village under our tree, and we think of whenever we hear “We Three Kings,” one of her favorite songs from this time of the year. When we assemble our gingerbread house, I’ll ask the kids to cover the roof with jellybeans, my mom’s favorite candy, and we’ll discuss which flavors she liked best. With each conversation, we will bring my mom closer.
Most of all…
Perhaps honoring my mom through Christmas will help us heal. Perhaps it will help my family adjust to our new reality, a life with an enormous loss in it. Perhaps we’ll start to knit together the brokenness we feel by celebrating a holiday that has, for years, been a source of joy. I am hopeful.