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It’s December, and I feel it.
The way the day starts dimming just after three in the afternoon.
The bite of ice in the air.
The pressure of the ticking calendar, the anxiety dreams where it’s suddenly Christmas Eve and I forgot to buy presents.
And the longing. For my dad. My brother. The dear friend who died just before Christmas, nearly 20 years ago now.
The first time I really hated the holidays was the Christmas after my brother died.
I loathed the Christmas carols droning through stores, the commercials brimming with happy, intact families, and don’t even get me started on the small herd of Victorian carolers who haunted our town, dressed in garish costumes.
Everywhere I turned, the entire world seemed to be reminding me that most families weren’t grieving. That we were supposed to be happy and jolly because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, dammit!
Even our extended family seemed to forget we were grieving. When a cousin returned home for the holidays, we all gathered around our aging grandparents for a family portrait. “Everyone’s here!” a family member bellowed merrily. But everyone wasn’t there, of course—my brother was missing, and that gaping space he left was nearly all I could see.
And of course, all the memories of rushing to our stockings on Christmas mornings past reared up, crashed over me, overwhelmed me. In those first years of grieving my brother, memories weren’t a solace—they were a sharp knife.
Last year, once again, was a holiday season to simply survive. I cried through most of Christmas because we’d lost my dad in June of 2019. My dad was a bit of a Grinch when it came to the holidays—he didn’t understand all the fuss of it, the overtaxed credit cards, the consumerism. He was someone who showed his love more quietly, in steady acts of service, than through brightly wrapped gifts.
And yet the holidays still intensified my grief for him. Maybe because I’m a bit of a Grinch, too. Or because the holidays always shine a light on our losses.
This year, with COVID-19, so many of us are grieving. We’re grieving loved ones who have died. We’re grieving lost jobs. We’re grieving for our old normal. We feel a longing for a time when kids went to school and we didn’t wear masks and we weren’t terrified of each others’ respiratory droplets. We’re grieving the simple, steady traditions we once relied on, like family gatherings, and we’re grieving a nation we might not recognize, one deeply divided.
It seems to me that holiday grief is at its worst when we try to avoid it. When we tell ourselves to cheer up, to dig deep for that holiday spirit, to focus on what we do have, to channel our energy into helping others.
So what if we, instead, entered the holidays with an expectation that we’ll have dark days, moments of longing, feelings of brokenness? If we reminded ourselves that it’s normal to miss our loved ones, our pre-pandemic lives?
Better yet, what if we stopped thinking of grief as something dark, something to be avoided acknowledging at all costs?
What if we celebrated it for what it is—our love, turned inside out? The necessary pain of being mortal, of daring to care deeply for one another? The art of remembering our own impermanence?
Yesterday, my family put up our Christmas tree. Even with the usual sibling spats between my kids, we had a lovely time spiraling lights around our tree, hanging my kids’ handmade ornaments, watching my daughter place the star at the top.
I was enjoying the moment; my typical holiday grumpiness receded.
“We should have a Papa ornament,” my nine-year-old daughter said. The idea of hanging something with a picture of my dad on it caught me by surprise, and I froze. “You know, like the ornament of your grandma.” She pointed to an orb with a picture of my dad’s mom on it.
“You know what? We totally should,” I said. “That’s such a sweet idea.”
I think my daughter has it right—what if we tinseled our trees with not just shiny baubles, but also with our grief?
What if we showed them to one another, if we added them to our social media feed? If we said, the holidays are hard; I really miss my brother, my dad, my friend.
How seen might we feel? How authentic? How dazzling?
As we walk deeper into the dark, let us remember that if the holidays are hard for us, we are not alone.
Let us recall how universal grief is.
Let us reimagine strands of holiday lights as bulbs of love, illuminated—because loss visits us all.
And let us set a place at the table—or on the tree— for our grief, because it belongs out in the open, just like our love.