Surviving the holidays… it took me a long while to bring myself to write about this subject. Usually the words flow from my fingers onto the computer screen even before I have finished my thought. This was a tough one though. My son, Neal, and his two little boys Devon and Ian, were murdered in August of 2007. That makes this only my second holiday season without them, and without even the numbness and disbelief of that first year, I am finding it hard going. So, who am I, just a newbie, to stand up here and talk to you about surviving this difficult time of year?
Everything conspires against us during the holiday season, doesn’t it? We don’t just have to deal with the hole rent in the fabric of our family and imagine empty chairs and missing faces at all our celebrations. Every commercial break we are bombarded by images of happy families and smiling children. The media pulls out all the stops, with movies and stories about miraculous reunions, of sadness turned to joy and appreciation, and hard hearts moved to compassion. Themes of holiday gladness paint every street corner…every store plays traditional music that tugs remorselessly at our heart strings and our haunted memories. Grief waits around every bend to provoke us to tears with a sound or a smell that underlines our great loss.
Even those who try to help can unknowingly make the holidays more difficult. I attended a holiday memorial for the recently bereaved last year. As I sat and listened to words meant to comfort, I suddenly realized that this service was not for me. My boys weren’t killed by accident or illness. There was no merciful release from pain. Messages about God’s mysterious ways did not resonate with me. It wasn’t the random finger of fate that took our loved ones away, but human will. That’s a very different thing, isn’t it? There is no way to find comfort in murder. It’s evil. It’s wrong. And it certainly isn’t what they deserved, is it? So comfort has to come from someplace else.
I stumbled through the holidays last year. Some traditions I carried on with, even those that were meant for children. The thought of cutting them out seemed to hurt more than the empty celebration. I bought them each a new Christmas ornament, but never put up a tree. I put out shoes for St. Nikolas on December the 5th and arranged for them to be filled with candy and small gifts, even though there were no longer any children in the family to squeal at the sudden bounty, or coming running to tell me, as Devon had the previous year, “We’re rich, Oma! We’re rich!” Christmas day, on the other hand, my daughter and I ignored altogether, buying no gifts and letting the day slip past with hardly a whisper, and I didn’t even stay up to greet the new year. But, even with all of that, you know what? We survived. We made it. We weren’t defeated by grief and loss, and as hard as each year is, we need to remember that.
I have read many suggestions of strategies for surviving the holidays. Some of them have worked for me, and some haven’t. Some may work this year and not the next. I don’t know. No one can. But I have learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is to listen carefully to your own self. If you feel you need to do something, do it. If it hurts too much, let it go this time. Perhaps you will feel differently when next year’s holiday season arrives. Talk. Communicate. Let your friends and loved ones help you to cope, and you will be helping them in return.
Grief may be a sneaky thing, waiting around the corner to trip us up, but comfort can also be found in unexpected places, just as our loved ones can be found in surprising places. One of Ian’s little friends called me up the other day. She wanted me to explain why Curious George the monkey didn’t have a tail. In her voice I could hear Devon, with his thirst for knowledge and his passion for primates. My daughter has acquired a puppy…a very energetic and sometimes naughty puppy. I see Ian in his enthusiastic greeting when I enter the door, and when he steals my yarn and turns it into a big mess I remember how my little guy could “help” my yarn into a mass of tangles in three seconds that would take hours to unravel. It makes me smile. It makes me see that they aren’t gone – not really, not completely. I carry them with me in my heart and in my memory, always safe, always immediate. They wait around every corner, too, ready to defend my castle and do battle with grief and loss. The victories may be small, but they are victories nonetheless. And that is how I hope to survive the holidays.