I was 12 when my half brother died, 15 when my grandpa died, 18 when my grandma died, 22 when my dad died, and 25 when my brother died.
I’ve never had more than four consecutive years since I was 12 without experiencing a major loss. I’ve experienced more death in my 29 years than most adults I know.
When your life has been so defined by loss and grief, the holidays change form. Our traditions growing up revolved around my grandparents’ house; we spent Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas at their house, eating and opening presents and spending time with extended family. We were the hub, the place my cousins and aunts and uncles came to visit.
After my grandparents died, I felt such a loss, not only for the two people I was closest to outside my immediate family, but also for every tradition that died with them. Our family made the most of holidays, spending them in Texas and Vegas and Connecticut.
After my dad died, I started to resent this time of year.
After my brother died, I actively dreaded it.
It’s been four Christmases since then. Four holidays visiting my mom in an empty house, creating a new tradition of getting drunk and crying about how much I’ve lost. Four seasons spent in pain, jealous of others and their seemingly joyful times. I wish I could say it’s gotten easier, but each year I’m surprised by how the waves of sorrow still hit me just as hard.
It’s truly heart-wrenching to walk into this season, to see happy people with happy families spending time together. I still go home, and my mom and I piece together what’s left of our family.
But you can’t call it a celebration.
We survive the day. We spend time with each other and other loved ones, we open presents, we drink wine, we cry. I love being home, I love the comfort and nostalgia and seeing friends and going to my favorite coffee shop. But it’s balanced with a steady stream of sadness, a cloud hanging over my head, reminding me I am not as happy as I used to be. I find myself avoiding my family because I want to avoid the painful emotions. It’s hard to sit with my mom, knowing she’s feeling it and there’s nothing either of us can do.
Somehow, the worst days are directly after the holiday, when I’m back in Colorado in the life I’ve built for myself. This week, I’ve been weighed down with the sorrow of it all. I feel like I’ve constructed this world in another state, one built entirely by me from the ground up.
In this world, I don’t have to be someone who has lost so much; it’s as if I can escape into a pretend life. I can forget my sadness for moments and just move forward. I can pretend that I’ve just left everything behind in Arizona, not that I’ve lost them forever. It’s not real, but sometimes it feels necessary for survival.
But after Christmas, I just can’t escape. I feel as though my emotional wounds are raw and vulnerable, forcing me to tend to them. I know it’s because I need it, because I can’t just play pretend all the time.
And it’s still so hard. It’s still so overwhelmingly painful. It still makes me feel so weak and scared and hopeless at times. And it’s my truth.
I dread the holidays, and I hope it’s not always this way, but for now all I can do is to keep surviving.