Grief and Holidays: Tears and Magic

When unavoidable pain meets unavoidable holidays.

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We had a reservation for 4 adults and a high chair at a newly Michelin starred restaurant in Williamsburg. Soon after being seated in the middle of the bustling atmosphere, E asked, “So Thanksgiving…”

It was an implied, “Tell me all your thoughts and feelings and emotions that are surrounding the next 50 days: Thanksgiving, your dad’s birthday, Christmas, New Year’s.”

“Have you thought about what you want it to look like?”

E was always direct in his questioning, a stark and welcomed difference from everyone else in my life. Perhaps that’s why being around him and K, friends who were persistent in communication and calling and light, always settled me.

I stumbled with my answer, visions in my head of an impending internal disaster. Taking a sip of water, “I haven’t even asked myself that question yet.” Even more honestly, I’m not even sure I would have asked myself.

Thanksgiving was three weeks away. 18 months prior my parents and my sister were tragically killed in an accident. In my second round of the sun since losing them, I was in no less distress, overwhelmed in feelings that I was still trying to reveal to myself, digging deeper into grief and isolation and pain. As others see the accident as a distant past, my flesh still opened raw.

“What do I need?” is a question I am learning to ask myself and, perhaps more importantly, learning to provide an answer. Here is what I knew: I needed what was left of my immediate family. My son, my husband, my sister, my brother, my niece and nephews.

Here is what I didn’t know: did I want to host in our parents house? did I want a house full of people? did I want the traditions that my parents had instilled in us? did I want to intentionally bring parts of them into the day? did I want to ignore all of my people pleasing and move to the woods to be alone?

It feels strange to go about the unspoken traditions without them, empty. Without W making the Betty Salad and dad carving the turkey and mama doing the prayer, we’re left with too many sweet potatoes and pie. We are left with orphans trying to emulate their spirits, trying to pull them back to us to great defeat.

We went on with it, hosted it in my parents house that was now occupied by M, and tried to soften the day with love and 35 people. We scrubbed the house, Z grilled the turkeys, M found mama’s stuffing recipe, I made the pies, babies ran around full of life.

While I sat for a moment at the table spreading cheese carefully selected from Kroger on a Wheat Thin, taking a breath and checking in with myself, tears welled. Gram looked at me and asked if I was OK. “I’m fine,” I lied. But I looked to the kitchen and didn’t see dad carving the turkey, a generic prayer was said instead of mama’s sweet words of gratefulness, and no Betty Salad. Children filled the house with love, but I was in despair.

Two years ago, I had announced I was pregnant with H, to much surprise and joy and screams and tears. Two years ago we were sitting around the card tables playing Euchre and Head’s Up deep into the evening. At 2:00 AM, I sat with my parents, drunk on hormones and red wine, discussing pregnancy and the love that parenting brings them.

Nothing was fine. The screams and tears were in my head now.

As we move towards Christmas, the first Christmas my toddler will feel the enchantment, I do not get to go home to the midwest because I will be patiently waiting the birth of my next child. When I think about the things I need, which is only what’s left of my immediate family, I realize it cannot happen.

My parents created magic at Christmas, with the fattest tree that was diligently decorated, dad, sweating, wiping his brow, wrapping tiny white lights into the branches of the Norwegian Spruce. Mama picked matching wrapping paper: brown craft with twine or gold and blue or red and white, her elves wrapping into the deepest hours of Christmas Eve, James Taylor playing, hot cocoa brewing. Surprises always popping up unexpectedly: thoughtful giving, Cozmo’s in the cupboard and baby announcements. She made egg strata, one vegetarian, one with spicy sausage, that we enjoyed before W came over with the boys, we unwrapped presents one by one, sure to delight in each others reactions, loving the slowness of time, the togetherness of us.

It’s far too painful to imagine for most, the lack of us. Two Christmas’ ago was the last time I saw my family and that date looms in the space before the New Year.

Have I thought about what I want Christmas to look like? Sure. I bought a fat tree and strung the lights meticulously so they glow with the early sunsets of the east coast. It’s decorated with ornaments mama bought me when I moved to New York, with new ornaments I’ve collected for H. I’ve introduced The Polar Express and I’ll fill the season with surprises and egg strata and togetherness and the belief in something more.

But as I was putting together my list of who I needed to buy for, I cried thinking of those who are absent, a constant notion but so bluntly written down by my pen seemed surreal. To walk into the Brooklyn boutiques just to find the most thoughtful book or most beautiful scarf or richest coffee that would bring joy to their hearts but be unable to buy it because their hearts no longer beat, except with mine, is excruciating.

It won’t be fine, but I’ll take walks and deep breaths of the cold winter air to smell the pine and check in with myself, continuing to ask what I need. I’ll spend time alone. I’ll spend time with friends. I’ll soak in giggles and joy. I’ll buy thoughtful gifts when I can. I’ll lean into the pain of the season and let the tears reside with magic.

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