Holidays can be heartbreaking if you have experienced loss.
There might have been an empty seat at your Thanksgiving table. It might be the first Christmas that your Dad is not the one to put up the Christmas lights.
For me there is a sharp sting deep in chest when I hang my son’s stocking. I can’t help but think that if my son Jack were here, I would be hanging two stockings, side by side.
I wonder if Jack would have celebrated the Christmas season in the NICU, with the everyday angels who work as nurses. (Is there anyone kinder, or who performs more miracles on the daily than those who care for our littlest loves in the hospital?) I imagine that he would be at dinner with us, and we would be learning to use his feeding tube.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I let myself imagine that he could have just been a regular, healthy boy—who would have eagerly opened gifts on Christmas morning, beside my son Wes. He might have been too shy to sit on Santa’s lap, and hid in my arms instead of taking a picture. I would have had two Christmas lists to shop for, two sons in cuddly Christmas jammies to snuggle to sleep, two goopy, runny noses to wipe from the colds that seem to catch us every winter. This hurts the most to imagine.
And then, I imagine that Jack is my bright North star. He is here, but so far away. Shine on, little love. Please shine on me today, okay? I could use some extra light.
But the truth is, and what I really wish that more people knew, is that the holidays are not really much different than any other time of year. When we live with grief, we courageously live and grow with it—we carry that grief every day of the year. Grief takes up permanent residence in the red, velvety, four room cabins of our hearts. Grief is carried deep in our chest, encased in a cage of ivory bones, and tended to by our brave spirits.
In our modern and sanitized society, we tend to treat grief like a game of Whack-a-mole. If you haven’t had the pleasure of growing up in the Jersey Shore, with splinters on your feet from deteriorating boardwalk wood, and a permanently peeling sunburnt nose, you might not know this obnoxious game.
After putting some coins in the slot, you pick up a large padded mallet or hammer. There are holes in the table in front of you, and through those holes pop out alligators. It is your job to smack them down with that mallet. When you do, they make a satisfying “ow!” sound, and for a moment, you have victory. You smacked ’em down. Phew! You got ’em! They’re gone.
But then, through the hole you least expect—a sneaky alligator pops up once more. Again, your sticky hand grips the mallet, preparing for attack. But this time, he is popping up faster. Next thing you know, there’s more than one alligator! And you can’t predict where they will come from next. It becomes a frenzy of smacking, as you try desperately to shove the alligators back down.
Shove it down.
It’s how we handle things.
And that is the thing about grief. If we don’t live with it, grow with it, and acknowledge it daily, it pops up in the most unexpected places. It pops up when we are decorating our tree, or lighting a holiday candle. It pops up with a vengeance on a Sunday morning as we sit with our coffee. It pops up when we “should” be happy, and brings with it not only sadness, but a sense of fear and anxiety.
But, when we allow ourselves to carry grief, to hold it, to feel it deeply—it can’t pop up and startle us anymore. It can’t scare us, or destroy us out of nowhere, and we no longer have to fight it down. It no longer can show up out of the clear blue sky and choke us, and instead, it can breathe with us. It is no longer a menace, but rather a companion that we can learn to live with.
Don’t get me wrong, carrying grief not easy. Even still, it must be carried, and not smacked down or shoved away.
Sometimes my grief is a backpack. One that has been overpacked, and that I feel resentful about carrying. It digs into my shoulders, tightens my neck and jaw, and no matter how I adjust the straps, it just doesn’t fit right. It is just too heavy for me. The zipper is broken from trying to hold too much, crammed full of darkness, fear, and sorrow. But I don’t put it down.
Sometimes, I actually forget I am carrying my grief. As I am past the two-year mark in my healing, the majority of my days are sunny and normal. I go about my days and am happy. I am in the moment, that lovely, silly, annoying, real present moment, and then I reach into my pocket. And like a little stone that I forgot I was carrying, there it is.
Oh, hello grief. Yes, you are here. No, you are not too heavy for me. I can carry you. Yes, you are a little rough and pointy, but I got ya. Even though you are not preoccupying my thoughts, you are with me.
Grief is carried on my body like a scar. A mark of a deep trauma, but one that was not strong enough to stop me from living.
Mostly, grief is a heartbeat. It goes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without me even thinking about it. It isn’t ’til I slow down that I hear it. I feel the vibration, deep in my chest. A steady drum, whispering “I’m here. I’m here.” Whether or not I choose to acknowledge it, grief beats a pattern that is both a triumphant victory march, and a melancholic rhythm, every day.
Permanent percussion. It beats on Christmas Eve as the kids wait for Santa, and on Thanksgiving as we pass the mashed potatoes. It beats as we fight for a parking spot at the mall, because we let our shopping go to the last minute. It’s beating as the clock counts down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, as we hope for new beginnings and “upgraded versions” of ourselves. Grief pounds in our hearts like a marching band at 3 a.m., when we can’t settle ourselves back to sleep.
Thump, thump. “I’m here.”
It beats a congratulatory sound when we blow out our birthday candles, because we survived another trip around sun, all the while carrying our pain. It beats as we wait in line at the grocery store—running through lists in our heads one more time. It beats when our best friends make us laugh, and we appreciate how much they just “get” us. It beats as we give someone the finger when they cut us off driving, it beats when we lose our patience at our child for spilling juice on the rug yet again, and it beats as we forgive ourselves for the crimes of being human.
And we carry the sadness, curse the darkness, and resent the shitty hand we’ve been dealt. But, because of our loss, we feel a gratitude we’ve never known before. That gratitude makes small moments even sweeter, makes Christmas lights look more twinkly, and makes us more likely to hold a hug just a little bit longer. We’ve learned that angels don’t just show up at Christmas time on top of tree, but that they are the people who surround us in this life. Miracles are not just for snow days, but sunny days, rainy days, and all days. They’re found in ocean waves, thoughtful text messages, and sloppy kisses.
This holiday season, tie your scarf around your neck, brave the cold, zip up your parka like a suit of armor against the elements, and take your grief with you like a small stone in your pocket—knowing you’re not alone.
It’s dark at 5 p.m. now. I can see the stars, and my breath, in the cold. Can you shine on me, Jack? I need the light.
And the heart beats, aches, and breaks.
And beats some more.
Author: Logan Kinney
Image: Sunlight Cardigan/Flickr
Editor: Jen Schwartz
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen