December 21, 2016

How to Survive the Holidays when a Loved One is Missing.


I loathed the first Christmas after my brother died.

I felt like the strands of jewel-toned lights were taunting me, the ads flashing symbols of family and love and togetherness. The tumbling of decades of holiday memories rising in my mind: the time my brother and I secretly opened each other’s gifts weeks before Christmas. The photos of us hunched beneath the tree, unwrapping sweaters or skis. It all felt like salt on the wound, stinging and mean.

All I could see was what was missing—my brother. My family as I’d known it.

To cope, my parents and I followed the advice of grief books and created new traditions. We spent Christmas morning with two women whose husbands had died within the last year. It sounds like a real party, right? Two grieving parents, a bereft sister, and two widows. But it actually was. Not having to pretend that life was shiny and tinsel-lined was a relief. Together, we agreed it was okay to hate the holidays, and with that permission hovering in the air around us, we actually found small pockets of joy.

It was still hard and painful, and everything felt off-kilter, tilted. But we survived it. We gave each other silly gifts, and we giggled a little, and together, we wrapped gauze over that first set of holidays without our lost loves, knowing that the following year would likely be a little easier, having gotten through with our new, unwelcomed normal.

It often feels like a lifetime since that first Christmas without my brother. Yet, the holidays still bring up a distinct sense of unease in me. All the expectations of cheer and joy and brightly wrapped gifts doesn’t make the ache in our lives go away.

Sometimes, it simply illuminates it.

We never get over the loss of a loved one. We get through. With time, the rawness eases. But the pain also settles into our joints, into the hollow of our bones. It is patient and stubborn. It lingers. For many of us, the holidays bring it all rushing to the surface.

My life today is good, and one that a younger, haunted version of me couldn’t have imagined. I have two beautiful babies, a kind, funny husband, and amazing friends and family. This is not the raw, metallic grief of those early years. Yet, I still can’t totally embrace this season. I can’t string lights without those sore parts making themselves known, reminding me they’re here—still, and probably forever.

One of the hardest lessons of my adulthood is about figuring out how to hold the dark and the light at the same time. To understand that emotions can be layered and complex, that we can be grateful and grieving, hobbled and happy, devastated and daring, all simultaneously.

This year, I’m going to more fully invite the richness of all these feelings. The delight of smoothing snow-white frosting across sugar cookies and dusting them with ruby-colored sprinkles. The anniversary of one of my closest friend’s death that brought so many tears today. The sparkle in my children’s eyes as they make out their gift lists. The feeling of my husband’s palm. The ancient, yet ever-present loss of my baby brother. There is space for it all if, just like that first Christmas without my brother, I allow it.

I am overflowing.

May this season be rich and real. May we not need to hide from our sadness, our longing, or our goodness. May we find space for all of this to mingle. May we feel it all, brightly, achingly, deeply.


Author: Lynn Shattuck

Image: IB Wira Dyatmika/Unsplash

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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