I’m stringing up the Christmas lights when the thought rises in me: My dad is gone. He’s really gone.
My dad always managed to hang the lights in a perfectly spaced spiral. Organized and logical, in many ways, my dad was my opposite.
Exhibit one: when I plug my just-strung lights in, it looks like something the cat barfed up.
And we don’t even have a cat.
“I’m going to take a break,” I tell my husband, and I escape upstairs to sit on my bedroom floor and cry.
My beautiful dad died in June. The words still feel wrong, a bad dream I can’t quite shrug off. He was here, like he’d always been, seemingly healthy. And then, with very little warning, he wasn’t.
A few weeks ago on Thanksgiving, all I could focus on was how much I missed my dad. I missed his complaints about how East Coasters prefer to eat Thanksgiving dinner early. I missed his ritual of making Monte Cristo sandwiches the day after. I missed his voice, the crisp smell of his soap. I missed the flex of his knuckles as he’d deal out cards to me and my kids to play Old Maid. I missed him kneeling on the floor of our living room, tickling my daughter until she made dolphin squeals.
All day, I tried to conjure gratitude for my remaining family, my health, my home. But I couldn’t rest my gaze on anything but my dad’s absence. It hung humid in the air, blurring out my blessings. I guess I just have to get through this day, I realized after several hours of fighting against my feelings, of trying to slip into an emotion that was out of reach.
For me, the holidays are almost always laced with longing. For my brother, whose death 20 years ago forever altered the landscape of the holidays for me and my parents. For a dear friend who died in December. For some genuine meaning in this season of shopping and sugar. For sunlight.
My brother’s death necessitated that my parents and I create new traditions. And now, those “new” traditions have become well-worn, a soft and faded flannel. Without my dad here, we have to once again recreate, once again stumble through the landmines of memory and grief. Which today, apparently, means a hot mess tangle of Christmas lights and sobbing on my bedroom floor.
I’d like to just fast-forward to mid-January—or, better yet, late April. All the feelings I had in the early years after my brother died resurface—how come I can’t just try and enjoy the holidays? Why can’t I focus on all I do have? Why do I have to be such a damned Grinch?
It helps when I consider dark and light. In the northern hemisphere, December is the darkest month. What if the holidays weren’t a time to focus on overspending and overeating and overscheduling, but were simply a dark time we are all trying to get through the best we can, trying to hang a few stars and glowing lights on?
Because that’s what this holiday season feels like to me. Just like this Thanksgiving, the holidays are something to simply survive.
And I’m surviving the only way I know how—by making ample space for my sadness.
By writing. By walking the woods. By connecting with friends who are going through similar losses, and others who aren’t afraid to make space for heaviness.
And, sometimes, by trying to find my dad.
The other day, I tried to summon him. I went looking for his missing love. His unconditional devotion. I sat with my eyes closed, in the bathroom—because like my bedroom floor and the car, the bathroom has become my grief altar. And when I did, I found flannel and soap and warmth. I felt the flame of him rise in my chest. It was laced with so much pain, it instantly brought me to thick tears.
But it was there—that love was still there. Someday, I thought, I will feel more love than pain.
Someday, it won’t hurt this much.
During the holidays, our grief can feel even more stark and heavy than usual. The season feels like the ultimate “Good Vibes Only” party, and our grief is definitely not invited. We might feel like we need to cram it into a dark corner and plaster on a smile as we dutifully, half-heartedly, mutter, “Happy Holidays.”
But grief shouldn’t be something to spirit away. Because our sadness and longing is simply love without a physical home. And I can’t think of anything more positive or sacred than our fierce connections to one another.
And if that’s the case, then loving and longing for someone who’s not physically here anymore?
It’s actually holy.
So as I stumble through this holiday season, these long, dark days, I’m trying to keep that in mind. I will count the ways we connect. The warmth that glistens between us. These lovely faces here in front of me—my husband, my kids, my mom, my friends—the ones I see every day.
And I will make space for those I can only now see in photographs and dreams and memories. We are still strung to one another. We hang in each other’s hearts and minds.
In this season of dark and light, may we remember that both these things can be true: there is so much to be grateful for, and there is so much that hurts.
May we make room for all the bright and messy strands, for the holy ache of being human.