The holiday season can be a joyous time for celebration. Following a death or disruption in the family, festivities can feel like a constant reminder of the profound loss.
Thanksgiving and the winter holidays were my Mom’s favorite time of year. She was the heart and soul of celebrations; everything from carefully setting out the nativity set, to shaping pie dough with her delicate hands. We rolled our eyes at the Christmas music—John Denver and the Muppets—but sang along with appropriate gusto because it made her laugh.
The months following her death are a blur of grief and end-of-life details. Before we knew it, November had rolled around, finding us ill-prepared to deal. Going through the motions while the rest of the world is joyous was no longer a new experience. The profound reminders of her absence, however, were overwhelming. Should we put out the reindeers and nativity set? Is decorating the tree disrespectful or honoring? It’s all too much.
None of us remember even the faintest of details about those holidays, except this vast sense of all that would never be again.
The next October provided a little more distance. We started talking about how to spend the holidays, when my Dad said, “whatever last year was, I want to do the opposite.” Sounds a bit odd, but he was coming from a place of surviving the most painful time of his life. Finding a way to celebrate—or at least acknowledge—Thanksgiving without blackness of despair, that was the goal.
Almost jokingly, I suggested Las Vegas. He surprised me by agreeing and booking his second trip to Sin City since the 1970’s. My father doesn’t drink and isn’t a big gambler. He’s a somewhat reserved book geek (like me), who loves everything about very traditional holiday celebrations (unlike me).
We spent a long weekend in Las Vegas; meeting up with another friend and his family as well. Thanksgiving dinner was booked at an upscale restaurant and provided the familiar backdrop, without completely overwhelming us with grief. Time spent with other people, who weren’t family, also gave us a warm distraction. Not having the constant pulse of, “oh my god, how are you holding up?” was a welcome change.
There were tears, and hugs, and laughter, and memories, and more tears. The distance from home created space for us to incorporate new experiences with all the joyous years of my Mom. She was there.
She was there because we shared her stories and traditions. No one wants to cry into a warm slice of pumpkin pie, but damn it, sometimes it needs to happen. Those left behind honor the lost by looking after each other. The world is a little less bright without my Mom in it, but her light shines on when we revisit years past.
We drove out into the desert and watched the sun set. We played slots; it turns out my Dad has a knack for picking machines. We watched people go by. We cried a lot. We ate too much at brunch. This is our holiday tradition now, and we go back each year. Four days of hanging out together is incredibly healing.
So, if you find yourself struggling this year, think about defining new traditions. It doesn’t have to be an expensive trip or elaborate dinner. Something that calls to you – shared time with people who reenergize your soul, or alone if that’s better to regroup. Being stuck in between ‘what was, but will never be again’ and your new reality is a painful, confusing time. Explore and give yourself space to process. Ask for help when you need it, and provide it when you can. It can get better, trust me.
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