I remember getting “the call.” I was at a friend’s birthday party. My father had collapsed. He died two days later. The following year, his mother died. Eighteen months after that, my mother lost her battle with cancer. Six months later, my mother’s mother would pass away as well. In just three years and nine days, I went from being the oldest of “the kids” to being the oldest living member of my direct line. I was 36.
When you go through any loss, much less a lot all at once like was the case for me, there are a lot of firsts. The first Mother’s Day without your mother, the first anniversary of their death, their birthday, and so on. That first year is pretty well-filled with land mines that can’t be avoided.
Perhaps worst of all: Christmas. A quintessential family day, Christmas is a time that, for most of us, holds more memories than nearly any other occasion. The traditions, the family, the joy. But when you’re experiencing it for the first time minus someone who once played an integral role in your life, it’s achingly painful.
As you’re going through it, the times when you don’t think you can even catch your breath because the grief is so incredibly raw feel like they might rip you apart. But they don’t. Each day, even Christmas Day, is one more day farther from the shock that losing them caused.
When I was experiencing my first holiday after an epic loss, many people tried to help me by saying things like, “You’ll never really get over the loss.” While it was well-meaning, I always found that advice pretty unhelpful. They all sought to prepare me for the fact that when you love someone so long and so well, you never stop missing them. But I think they were all far enough out from their personal experiences with loss that perhaps they had forgotten the sharpness of new loss, the paralyzing pain of that first year.
That first Christmas, everything is too raw. You do what you need to to get through it. The holiday season isn’t about celebration; it’s about survival. It’s putting on a good face to make it through work and whatever bare social necessities you have to attend to and then curling up on the couch to watch a TV show or read a book that doesn’t remind you of them. For me it was Tim Allen’s Santa Clause movies. My father would have hated them.
You use every coping skill you can come up with, and you get through it. You survive, and you wake up, and it’s December 26. There are 364 more days until you have to do it again. But somewhere in those 364 days, it gets easier. And by the time the second Christmas comes, you can breathe almost all of the time, not just occasionally, and you can see a Christmas tree and appreciate its beauty and hear a hymn and enjoy it. And some time after that, you can begin to see things that remind you of them and appreciate what they brought to your life and what they left behind rather than simply grieving their absence.
The fact is that no year after the first year is as hard. No Christmas after the first is as much of a struggle. There comes a point when you feel joy again and you laugh, and you remember their smiles and the things that they held dear, and you can talk about them without crying.
During each of the hardest years, my sisters and I found that it also helped when we could remember to be gentle with ourselves. To give ourselves and each other credit for what we were able to accomplish. We would award each other virtual “gold stars” for accomplishing great things. Sometimes those great things were getting out of bed and taking a shower. Sometimes they were making it through a business meeting without bursting into tears. Recognizing that when we were in such pain helped us stay afloat. So did an understanding shoulder when we couldn’t accomplish even those minimal goals.
It took a while to find balance after the many deaths in my family. Fortunately, my siblings and I were blessed to be surrounded by wonderful and loving friends. Friends who would call and say, “Don’t watch that movie that just came out—it’s a doozy,” or, “You need to take some time off—you’re not mentally able to handle working right now,” or, “You don’t need to be by yourself tonight—I’m coming over.”
Something that also helped us greatly was to recognize the blessings occurring around us. A couple days after my father’s death, we began a list of what we were grateful for. My faith tells me that God is good and faithful at all times, even, and often particularly, during times of great suffering. My dad, who suffered so much physically during his life, passed quickly and painlessly and with no difficult medical decisions needed. Each of our jobs allowed us months off to care for and enjoy with our mother as she was dying. Our church surrounded us with support everywhere that we turned. Had we asked for a kidney, I’m pretty sure they’d have lined up around the block to be tested as a match. Our friends flew in from all over the country to be with us at the funeral and during the months afterward. They remembered anniversaries and checked in with us to see how we were. Time and again we were humbled by the amazing blessings that saw us through.
And, as we went through it, we began to see how our experience could help others. Before my father’s passing, even with as much experience as I had with hospitals and dying from having grown up as a pastor’s kid, death of a parent was the one tragedy that I tended to shy away from. I always felt awkward and never knew what to say. Then he died, and I watched the same scenario play out over and over. People who had lost their parents understood and spoke to me. People who hadn’t mostly tried to avoid conversation; a rare few did reach out, and they always impressed me. It’s such a big and scary loss, and knowing that they were trying their best even without knowing what to say still sticks with me to this day. I know I didn’t have their grace.
This year, three years later, I am taking my son to the drive-through light displays that remind me of the drives we took as a family. And I’m taking him to the same Christmas Eve service at the family church that I have gone to since I was 2. And I’m sharing with him all our traditions—from hymns to food, how we decorate the tree, and how we open gifts Christmas morning. And I can find joy in that. I can tell him how this ornament used to hang on his great-grandmother’s tree and about the elves that came to our house when we were little and about the bûche de Noël that my mother would bake each year, and I can smile. I can share these memories of people he will never meet this side of heaven and pass along the wonder that they gave me. There is joy again.
Photo Credit: Regina Leah