The Holidays, How We Survived
We all know that the holidays create stress and expectations that can often make the family visits and busy schedules seem more painful than festive, but after the death of a close family member, the holidays become more of a challenge than ever. In our case, losing our 10 year-old son David in the beginning of October 2009 poised a particularly difficult task. Halloween was coming, followed quickly by his little sister Abby’s 8th birthday, then Thanksgiving (where there would be very little to be thankful for) and finally Christmas. It was like staring down the barrel of a cannon loaded with pain and heartache. Holiday time has always been so festive and joyous in our house, but like many of the newly bereaved I have encountered since, we didn’t know where to start. The following paragraphs chronicle some of what we did. Perhaps there are bits of our journey that will give you solace, or ideas, or even a glimmer of hope that others have faced this same dilemma and found a way forward. Take from my tale what you can use, and ignore the rest, because though none of us travel through grief in the same way, we can all find strength in our shared nightmares.
It was our daughter Abby that proved to be the lynch pin to us moving forward. My wife, Leslie, and I were totally devastated by losing David, but we knew that even with all we had lost, Abby had lost the most. Her big brother and her were great friends. They relied on each other for everything. Even though we were operating in a massive haze of sadness, the one thing we both could see was that we did not want life to stop for Abby. She needed us, and as normal a life as possible, more now then ever before. Thankfully the weekend before David died I had decorated the front yard for Halloween, otherwise pulling all the Styrofoam gravestones and pin-up ghosts and ghouls from storage would have been impossible for me. Abby had already decided she wanted to be a witch for Halloween, and that’s what she did. We did the whole trick or treating thing, and visited friends’ houses. We did exactly what she wanted, which was what she would have done if her brother were still alive. We talked about how David would have loved it. We joked that if there really were things such as ghosts, surely David would be hanging out with us. It was painful, full of tears, laughter, lots of comfort candy eating, and exactly what we needed to do. We kept moving forward, day by day, moment by moment. A week later was her birthday party. She wanted to go to a restaurant where you could order at the table on computer screens. We took and several friends to the restaurant, only to discover the restaurant had closed the week before. More disappointment! But we improvised, found another fun restaurant, and the party rolled on. Leslie and I were going through the motions, but for a 7-year-old little girl, it was exactly what she needed. She was sad David wasn’t around, but her life kept moving forward.
Thanksgiving was harder. A day built around the idea of thanks became very somber. We watched the Macy’s parade and tried to remain festive, but the idea of giving thanks was difficult. We set a place for David at the table that year, and when it came time to eat we talked about all the foods David liked or didn’t like, and we shared stories of him. With tears we said thanks for having been given the chance to love him while we could, and thanks that we were together to face the heartache of losing him, but it was not exactly the best of turkey days. And of course looming after Thanksgiving was the mother of all holidays, Christmas, and there was decorating, and singing, and gift buying and giving to be done.
It never occurred to us not to go forward with Christmas full steam ahead. As I said, we were living for Abby now, doing all we could to make sure David’s death was not going to destroy her life as well. Dragging the boxes of Christmas gear out of storage was rough. It seemed every figurine, every “Ho Ho Ho”, and every sleigh bell rang “David” when it made a noise. We shared a lot of stories as we decorated. Every time we would think of David, we would share it, and that meant we talked about him constantly. But the stories were full of laughter and smiles, even though they more often than not also brought tears. We put up the tree, and this year with every ornament that went up, we shared the story behind it. Some were very old and had been in the family for years, and we spoke of where it came from, and the newer ones we recounted when and where we had purchased them. That night after Abby had gone to bed, I lay on the landing overlooking our tree, the same spot I had laid the year before with David when I had shared what Christmas had meant to me as a child. I spoke to him again, and told him how hard it was to not have him there. It was excruciating and comforting at the same time. What was happening, though I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, was that I was indoctrinating the stories of David into my stories of Christmas. As the years have passed I realize that David is now part of our golden memories of Christmas. These memories shine every year, and bring smiles to our faces. There is always a feeling of melancholy to these memories, but they warm our hearts and remind us of love shared that goes way back, generations deep, and which never dies. Christmas memories are the folklore of a family, and that only becomes dearer as every year passes. It goes without saying that having David be a part of that tradition so soon is unnatural, but it makes perfect sense that within those dreamy memories of love, fun, and family he lives forever young and happy.
Many people facing their first holiday season tell me they don’t know how they can possibly do it this year. They say they can’t put up the tree, or sing the songs, because it will make them sad. Of course it will make you sad. I guess my experience was that even though we cried a lot of tears that Christmas, but they were tears of love. They were the tears we all must go through to move forward. Leaving Christmas in the boxes would have just been another way to try and avoid the heartache, which is something we can’t do if we hope to keep living. I know it’s hard, but if you can muster the incredible courage to try and go through the motions, you may discover that though Christmas morning will never be the same again, it can still be rewarding. Don’t let the death you’ve had to accept take away your life and joys. Give yourself the gift of choosing to move forward. No one finds a way through grief without the conscious decision to keep living. It’s one of the hardest things we must face when grieving, but essential to finding tomorrow again.
As I said, this is what worked for us, and I know it will not work for everyone. We were fortunate to have each other, and many of you reading this may not have others around to lean on as we did. Perhaps finding a way to give to others at church, or a homeless shelter, or simply dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army’s red pot will help. Reach out to others. For those that have lost children, find a World Wide Candle Lighting Event with the Compassionate Friends or a similar memorial event, and share your love and stories. It’s the season of giving, and nothing can help you find the love more than helping others, even when you feel you need the help most. Know that I wish nothing but good will and hope for a brighter tomorrow for all of you. I hope that this season, you hold tightly to the love and warm memories of the past, and reach forward to your own future. Peace, Light, and Laughter to you and yours.
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Healing Improv: A Journey Through Grief to Laughter