Have you been squelching a need to grieve? I recently found that I have, and didn’t know it.
A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded a book which is a compilation of two novellas written in order to bring hope back to the Christmas season for people who have experienced loss or other emotional challenges during that time of year. The title is Colors Of Christmas: Two Contemporary Stories Celebrate The Hope Of Christmas by Olivia Newport.
From the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book:
…two stories about both the ultimate transformational meaning of Christmas and the things we don’t like to talk about at Christmas time because somehow they don’t belong in the sort of Christmas we think we’re supposed to have….
Can Christmas be about the baby in the manger and also be about rending apart how we protect ourselves from the way the world hurts us?
I think so….
…I realize many “firsts” also mark the first…Christmas since a seismic shift of some sort.
The loss of a job….
The loss of a relationship….
The loss, by death, of a dearest friend, sibling, parent, spouse….
The first year with adjusted – or released – traditions…
My heart pricked, just a little, when I read this introduction. Thirteen years ago, in 2004, my dad died a week before Christmas. Exactly seven days later, on Christmas Day, the only grandmother I’d ever known – my mom’s mother – passed away. But when my heart pricked at the time I read the author’s words, it was more for my mom, who lost both her husband of over thirty years and her mother within a week’s time, right at Christmas. I know that the holiday was hard for her for a while, maybe still is.
The first story in the book was sweet, although I wish it had gone a little longer and brought more closure to Carly’s situation. It was the second story that got to me. About 75% through it, my heart broke.
I need to back up. Growing up, Christmas was my favorite holiday, and not just because of the presents. Every year on Christmas Eve, we would drive from our old farmhouse home in the country to my grandparents’ house in the city, often after having attended Christmas Eve Mass (I was raised Catholic). My dad would drive through downtown so we could see the lights and decorations, which were much more sparse back in the ‘70s than they are today and so that much more special.
Then we would go to my mom’s parents’ house. Until my grandma got too old to be cooking for us, we would eat the same meal and our grandparents would give us small gifts. My sisters and I would sing Christmas carols for them.
When we got home, Mom would open a box of chocolates and we got to splurge. We would open the gifts that an aunt and uncle in another state would send every year.
The next morning, we would open the gifts our parents had bought. And of course there was always the tree.
Then, when I was twenty-three, I moved to a state 950 miles away. My brother had been out of the house for six or seven years by then, and a couple of years later my middle sister moved in with a man she’d met via a newspaper ad (remember dating via newspaper? No? Am I really that old?). In the meantime, my youngest sister started college, and she moved out my parents’ home right after she graduated.
Around this time, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and eventually my grandparents went into a nursing home.
The year that my dad no longer could remember that we were celebrating Christmas was the beginning of my sorrow, though I didn’t know it then. However, for the first time in my life, I did begin to understand the phrase, “You can’t go home again.”
I began to understand that circumstances change. The traditions and routines I had come to associate with the happy and secure feelings I’d always experienced at Christmas fell apart.
What I didn’t understand was that this was a loss. And losses need to be grieved, however small, however silly they may sound to other people.
Determined to be stoic, I kept up the one tradition I could and decorated my apartment, and then condo, and then house with my new husband, for Christmas every year. We exchanged gifts. Through my single adulthood I would celebrate Christmas with my family every year. After I got married, until our son was about five years old, we would celebrate Christmas with both my family (although not every year) and his.
Every year, the “celebration” felt more and more stilted, more and more stressful, more and more like I was just going through the motions.
Then I had bunion surgery late one November – just before B turned six – and I couldn’t even help decorate the tree. Deficient in magnesium, I was three times as depressed as I would have been otherwise, thanks to being forced to sit around and having to endure the constant swelling of my foot.
Christmas was not a celebration for me that year, wasn’t for several years before then, and hasn’t been up until now. I also despised that despite my every effort for him not to, B looked at it only as a way to get more toys, and not with any spiritual significance.
Two years ago, we quit celebrating Christmas because, I told J, it felt artificial and forced. And I already knew it was basically a pagan holiday with God forced onto it by the ancient Roman church.
I told B that he would get gifts on his birthday and half-birthday, and he was okay with the decision.
Back to the book
In this story, Angela ends up at a pre-Christmas service that is specifically geared toward people who are anything but joyful at Christmas. The point of the service is not to sing carols and pretend like you’re happy – as everyone expects you to at that time of year – but to allow yourself to grieve, to feel sad, to remember lost loved ones if the holidays bring up those tenuous emotions.
At that point of reading the story, I lost it. I didn’t bawl or anything, but grief welled up in me – as it is again as I write about the experience at this very moment – and tears started streaming down my cheeks. I grieved the death of my father. I know I did. I cried at his funeral.
I’m not sure how much I grieved the loss of my grandmother. But we were close, and I wonder if perhaps the stress of my job at the time and the warped theology that I was supposed to rejoice at a loved one “going home” and not dwell on the loss truncated my need to feel the loss.
I know that I definitely have never grieved the loss of what used to be. I know that sounds stupid, even selfish, but hang with me a minute.
I’ve heard that postpartum depression is, in part, a kind of grief over the old life you use when you take on the responsibility of becoming a mother. So wouldn’t it make sense that some people may need to grieve the end of one period of life before they can completely embrace the next?
In this case, I think I’ve needed to grieve the loss of childhood traditions and innocence that wrapped me in warmth and security up into my late teen years. I’ve needed to grieve the loss of not having a dad who would always receive peanut brittle from one of his kids every Christmas, and who would always gift his wife a box of Whitman’s Samplers.
I’ve needed to grieve never being able to visit my grandparents on Christmas Eve again. Never to be able to sing Christmas carols to them. Never to experience that same kind of togetherness I felt among my family that I did on Christmas and Christmas Eve, before we all grew up and went our separate ways. Not to mention, developed separate spiritual beliefs.
Two years ago, I believed with all my heart that Father was telling us to withdraw from the holiday because of its pagan origins. I had already grown cynical about it because of the commercialism. Because the celebration of Jesus’ birth, besides not being mandated in the Bible, was arbitrarily placed on December 25 to offset the pagan winter festivals.
Now, I wonder if it wasn’t my own spirit that was talking to me, rather than the Holy Spirit.
Where does that leave me now?
A couple of paragraphs ago, while I was typing, I started crying so hard that J heard me and came over to see what was up. I had to quit writing.
Between then and now, we’ve started a conversation. Do we want to resume celebrating Christmas? If so, what will it look like?
The answers are still up in the air. But whatever we decide on that front, I know I have to let myself grieve for my losses. I won’t be able to find joy if I don’t.
One other thing is sure: the only way I’ll find joy is if I stop thinking of my childhood memories of Christmas as the ideal, if I stop thinking that it has to look a specific way. That’s the final stage of grief, right? Acceptance.
Acceptance that life will never be the same, but that it still can be wonderful.