Grief during the holidays can be tricky. One minute you’re decorating the Christmas tree and the next crying when your Dad’s favorite Bing Crosby song comes on.
The Short Story
Several things happened between 2012 and 2014. Mom died from complications from cancer. I became pregnant with our second daughter. Dad, a healthy man in his 70’s, died suddenly from a medical mystery. Shortly after that my beloved uncle died and a few months later, we said goodbye to Mimi, my only known grandparent. But, she had had lived to be 100, and we had celebrated her birthday with big party.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her book “On Death and Dying” that grief could be divided into five stages. Her observations came from years of working with terminally ill patients. I seemed to only have one stage: anger. I was angry with white-hot rage, the stage of grief that stays with me the most. It was so unfair. My daughter would have faint memories of her. No more phone calls. No mending of a strained relationship. When I returned to work, colleagues would pull me aside, give me huge understanding hugs; a few cried with me telling me personal stories of loss. I felt heard. I felt seen. I felt understood. And then some would ask that question, “how are you?” All I could ever say was “Angry. ” I couldn’t muster the word “sad.”
Ode to Joy
I did get back into a routine shortly thereafter but things still seemed amiss and felt…off. I was pregnant with my second baby! I was thrilled, over the moon excited, but also dealing with the loss of my mother and had conflicted feelings. I felt mad and sad and glad and….starting to feel like a Dr. Suess book about upsid edown feelings.
I sought counseling.
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” the counselor said. She said lots of other helpful things of course but that was my biggest takeaway.
I brought Olivia into the world and Dad and my sister Kim were at the hospital waiting with Indie, our oldest. Indie was wearing a sparkly Thanksgiving dress with a bedazzled Turkey on the front and Dad’s khaki’s and golf shirt were covered in sparkles too. He’d been in the waiting room with Indie on his lap reading books. It made me laugh. A laugh! I was finding my sense of humor back in tact. It had been missing for a while.
The Christmas Gift
Once getting settled at home, I gave Olivia over to Dad while I tended to something in the kitchen. Dad LOVED babies and was gently talking to her. He didn’t know I recorded a sweet moment where he said, “We should put you under the Christmas tree, because you’re the present,” his voice catching ever so slightly. I’d never seen Dad cry before Mom died and lately we are all crying and trying to duct-tape our feelings together.
Becoming an Orphan
Within months, Dad seemed to be slowing down. He was not eating enough and losing weight. He wasn’t sleeping well but fell asleep doing regular activities like reading a book to my daughter.
It wasn’t until he became suddenly ill and hospitalized for what was first diagnosed to be Lyme’s disease when my real panic started to set in.
He was eventually diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a severe systemic inflammatory syndrome that can be fatal. Soon after, Dad’s organs began to shut down one by one. By the time I got to the hospital, he was on a breathing ventilator. The wonderful team of doctors sought counsel from other hospitals for this mysterious illness but ultimately we had a conference call with the doctor who told us it was time to make a decision. I gathered with my family for a final good-bye with Christmas music, his favorite, in the background. This was the week before Thanksgiving 2013.
Within days my lifelong best friend flew across the country to cook us a beautiful Thanksgiving meal, grieve with us, as she had lost Dad too, and just listen and I tried sort out my inside out feelings. I wasn’t angry, I was utterly destroyed. The only thing that kept me getting out of the bed each day were my kids and my husband Jake. I felt that it wasn’t fair to them to stop living even though I felt like someone had put me through a meat grinder and made sausage of me. I had the same parts, but was someone completely different now. We had recently moved to a new neighborhood and I was starting to make a slew of new girlfriends, some of whom had gone through this or were about to and again I felt heard and understood. With time, I began to heal and to accept the inevitable.
Getting Back to Christmas
The original premise to this post is that grieving during the holidays can be challenging. For me these days, it is the joy of parenting, not the lack of parents that keeps me in the spirit. For that I credit Dad. He LOVED Christmas as much as he loved babies. All year-long when he would enter the house he often said, “Ho Ho Ho” in his folksy way of saying hello. And he had the best voice.
At Christmastime, he would blast Christmas music to Bayshore Road in North Cape May, NJ where I grew up. He bought a life-size manger scene and put that out near the road. He displayed a Santa-size sled. Dad also loved Charles Dickens added Dickens characters to the mix.
So, I understand if this time of year is tough if you have recently lost a loved one. I do. I can also say that I’ve let go of a lot of anger and flipped the script on my emotions. I was lucky for the parents I got, and no they weren’t perfect, but they gave me an amazing life, lessons, and skills that I try to reflect in my own parenting.
Here’s what helps me:
- Cooking Mom’s recipes like such as stuffed cabbage rolls, baked chicken, and apple cake.
- Helping others in my community
- Playing movies we enjoyed together. I like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Home Alone,” “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” and “When the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
- Praying. I know it’s not for everyone. I get it.
If you know someone who has recently lost a parent, or anyone they loved, reach out to them. They might not ask but they will appreciate it. I know I did.