The love of one person can light up a holiday and leave the memories of past holidays with them forever perfect in our minds.
Here is a passage I wrote from 2014, “Thanksgiving is next week. We have no plans. My grandma is in her 90’s now and had to quit hosting dinner for the holiday a couple years ago. Going to her house was my family tradition my whole life until the past couple years, we’d pack into the car and drive 2 hours. Up, up and then over the big hill to see Lake Superior spread out in front of us, we were almost there. Delicious food, cousins, aunts and uncles would all pack together in her house for a few hours. Most of the men watched sports downstairs, while the women were catching up and playing with the kids upstairs. There were always homemade pies, and I can still picture the scalloped potatoes served up on floral china. In my mind are clear visions of mini turkey shaped salt and pepper shakers, bowls of candy corn and mints in the middle of the tables. After dinner we’d all look through the Black Friday ads together. Cousins of all ages taking over one another and the younger ones running in and out of the rooms. It was a time to catch up with aunts and uncles, and as I got older it was also time with my parents and siblings too. It was magical.
“We would make a plan for what we wanted as kids, circling ads. Then years later we’d plan out together with the ads what we might get our own kids. A few times I was lucky to experience the holidays at my Grandma’s while being there with my daughter, my mother and her mother. What I would give to get to sit in that experience again for even 5 minutes…
“This year my in-laws are all out of town, each travelling. I haven’t heard if there is a celebration on my dad’s side this year. I hope so.
“For the first 30 years of my life I took these events for granted. I can imagine the smell of my mom’s perfume and the heat of her hair rollers all on their metal pegs. I’d watch my mom set her hair, get all 5 of us kids together and my father would drive us all, the smell of hairspray fresh in the air. Normally with some sort of car fixing talk radio on, we’d begin our our two hour drive all squeezed together with a feeling of anticipation in the air.
“There is a hole right now though as I think back. I am in an in between space. Not able to go back in time, yet not having new traditions to look ahead to. This will be my 4th Christmas without my mom’s glowing festivities and tangible happiness. It’s amazing how much one person can do to make a perfect holiday for so many others. As an adult now, I don’t know how she did it.
“There was always soft lighting, the house had a warm glow. The Christmas tree was decked out with dozens of handmade ornaments from all of throughout the years. Sometimes another smaller tree would be decorated more formal and subdued in the front window. I can still hear the Christmas music playing throughout the house. I can still distinctly remember the smell of pine and cookies, candles and food. More than that, there was a loving and welcoming energy. Anyone was welcome. Having everyone together was another opportunity for my mom to try out another few recipes. One year she spoiled us with steak or lobster, another we spinach and ricotta stuffed pasta shells. There was always meatballs, cheeses and homemade rice pudding. It wasn’t so much about what we ate, it was that her heart lit up in getting to prepare exciting and special foods for us “
Holidays change so much after a someone we’ve spent so many of them with is not longer here. That first Christmas I was caught between wanting to head the caribbean and pretend it wasn’t happening and recreating the perfect Christmas in my mom’s honor. It all felt so heavy, the holidays were arriving whether I was ready emotionally or not. The thought of having to face them brought many nights of tears, and a heavy feeling of dread and unbearable sadness. I didn’t know how I would be able to have conversations and not bring down the energy of every person I interacted with. It was really difficult.
It’s now been a decade and there have been happy celebrations and those with a soft feeling of emptiness. What keeps me moving forward is that I want my kids to have memories like I did. I am much more simple in my approach to holidays but the amount of love is the same. I want them to know that everything that my mom meant to me, I honor that I mean that to them. I will show up for them, even when it’s hard. I’ve since talked to people who have kept their past traditions and others who changed things up completely. I don’t think there is any perfect answer. I do think though that once we can look outside of our grief, there may be other people who value their holiday’s with us, or other’s hoping to find someone to share those times with.
I focus less now on gifts, and more on who I get to be with. I savor gatherings with family and friends. As time has passed I’ve learned that not every family has someone like my mom was. She was a gatherer of people, a light, someone who made the holidays come alive. I do realize though that we can become that for others. Ione, my mother in law embodies this spirit as well. In my husband’s family they often get together after Christmas and all meet at a hotel, lodge, rented cabin or something similar and spend the weekend together. Ione always arrives a little early in order to decorate the rented space and transform it to have a beautiful, Christmas feel full of her special touches. Tablecloths, floral arrangements, themed centerpieces are all around. I try to learn what I can from my mom’s memory and from Ione; we can all honor our loved ones who have passed on and those with us by embodying and emulating what we loved most about our holidays together with them.
Here are some ideas to bring your loved one into your holiday; make a meal they loved, play music they enjoyed, hang a remembrance ornament on the tree to honor them, talk about your loved one. Our first Christmas after my mom passed, all the girls in our family each wore one of my mom’s cheesy Christmas sweaters. It was a subtle way to feel her around and also lighten the mood a bit.
My wish for every one missing someone this time of year is for you to know you’re not alone, may you find small spots and pockets of joy. Feeling those moments of joy does not mean you’ve forgotten your deceased loved one, reframe it that they would not want their legacy to be that after they passed you could no longer enjoy holidays. For this first Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday, or other holiday the goal may be simply to get through it in one piece. Take the pressure off, especially if your loss was recent. Honor your needs as well. Schedule some down time, journal, bring extra mascara.