Marketing Christmas has begun. I went to the supermarket the other day, and stockings, Christmas decorations, candy canes and toys for children were placed prominently and strategically in every corner of the store. Not surprising, Thanksgiving has not yet arrived.
After the loss of my son, I didn’t have time to grieve on Christmas. We have our grandson every December, and it’s important to keep the season magical for him. Children are also the reason for the season.
I do weep in front of Louie because I want to model good grief hygiene for him. We should never be afraid to cry as we grieve – and we should teach our children that it’s okay too. I have worked hard to not be consistently two seconds away from a meltdown, but I do allow myself the moments when the loss is overwhelming, and I clutch my chest as a pang passes. I catch my breath and then I move on a bit.
I used to love malls during Christmastime. I loved the giant Christmas trees and the giant, shiny globes that hung from the ceiling throughout. I loved holding hands with my little son with eyes as big as the globes and the electric chill that ran through our bodies, such big excitement from such a little guy. I had 31 Christmases with him. I know I am fortunate to have had him for that long. He was my only child and the center of every holiday – they were for him, and it was my job to brighten the stars for him during the festivities. I did my best.
We don’t all have the greatest recall of holidays past, but for most of us, the memories do provide us with warm fuzzies and delight. I will always have moments of bittersweetness and giant sweeping waves of sadness even as the tide recedes, pulling back and gaining strength for the next rush.
My son never could wait for Christmas morning so he would stay up ‘til midnight, jump on the bed and say, “Mom, it’s Christmas now!” I would rub my eyes and say, “So it is.” I was a single mom and money was always scarce. My son’s biological father was a deadbeat dad and so we struggled, but I would pick up a second job during the holidays, benevolent churches that took us on for the holiday brought gifts, and my parents were wonderful, so my son always had lovely Christmases.
The struggle was real and beautiful. I think of all the things Rikki and I were able to rise above and work through in his short life. I have a Christmas ornament with his face on it, and as much as I want to place it on our tree, it’s difficult, so last year I didn’t. Our grandson didn’t even ask about it. For the first two years he put it on the tree.
When I see pictures of Latina families decorating the tree or making tamales in the kitchen, there is a tug in my heart, and I miss my sweet son even more than on a day when I work extra hard to be in the present moment.
Norman Rockwell’s lovely Christmas themed paintings make me gush and weep in close succession. My son loved shopping for everyone. His heart was so big, and he loved bringing joy to people. His gifts were thoughtful and said to each member of our family, “I know you.” He was the family’s only nephew and grandchild.
Thanksgivings are more difficult for me than Christmas is. Thanksgivings were Rikki’s. He made the most amazing turkey using his own recipe and with touches of his love for us. He beamed when the family gushed about his turkey. He actually got up early on Thanksgiving morning and got the turkey in the oven early enough so we could eat by noon. I taught him to make a turkey when he was 12 and after that, he looked forward to it every November.
Just a little less than one month after Christmas, my son will have been gone four years. Each culmination of the year brings lights and dirges. Everything is bittersweet – forevermore.
I haven’t made a turkey since Rikki died. Grief is a strange bedfellow; it is there when I awaken and it is there when I retire for the night – and it is in my knapsack I carry with me throughout the day, an apparition whose presence is felt profoundly.
I have carefully planned an outing for Thanksgiving where we will be surrounded by people, merciful distractions from the center place where my son’s turkey should be, an empty chair where he could watch everyone enjoy the fruits of his labor. How special the day used to be.
Developing holiday coping mechanisms is very important. We can certainly remain in a darkened room for the day and night – and there are times I have done that very thing, far fewer times now than in the early days of grief. Four years later I look for ways to be public and share the joy of the season -- bittersweetly. I smile and laugh as people are grateful for the gift of family. I am grateful too for mine. Rikki and I were the dynamic duo. He loved saying he was a mama’s boy. He always said it with pride and affection.
I’m going to dust off our ornaments – before Thanksgiving -- . I will see my son’s face in the red metallic globes, and I will shake off the beginning of a funk. I will stop dusting and move on to something more cerebral, so I don’t have to feel until I regain my bearings.
I love Pandora music stations. I turn up the music stations I created, and I listen to my heart’s content. Sometimes I dance; sometimes I cry. Managing emotions during historically traditional times of the year is a monumental feat – and sometimes -- it’s not. It’s definitely a crap shoot.
I’ve lost Thanksgiving as a heartwarming experience; I really have. I know it’s coming and I have learned to deal with it. I don’t cook. I only participate for my mother. She has a dinner at her senior apartments, and my husband and I go to that. It helps to help others and some of the people there are unable to move about with ease, so I help them with their plates, including my mom. There’s a sense of being needed and it helps to take me out of my grief for a few hours. I get out among people and I listen to what’s going on in their lives. No [wo]man is an island[…].
For Christmas, I try to get enraptured in our grandson’s rapture. He hasn’t lost the enchantment yet of the holiday season. He still wants to shake his gifts as he looks across the room at me with an impish grin and says, “I bet I know what this one is.” Who can be in despair when you’ve got a child around? We are both aware of why our relationship is so important. I am his only connection to his father. I love him fiercely.
I listen to Christmas music and I decorate. I live in the California desert, and I hate eggnog, so I make my margarita as I decorate -- in warmer weather than many parts of the United States. Sometimes I put on oldies and I dance and make my grandson laugh, which makes me laugh. The laughs are genuine too, not some monumental feigning of a feeling I thought I could no longer summon.
Louie asks me, “Grandma, can I open just one?” I say to my husband, “Grandpa, what do you think?” He’s the reasonable one in the family. I’m the one who knew I’d be awakened at midnight so a little boy could open all of his gifts. My son always went back to sleep of course after all the excitement, hugging his Snuffleupagus. I was wide awake with the knowledge that the turkey had to be prepped and put in the oven. I was always frazzled with all the tasks, surrounded by torn wrapping paper and scotch tape in my hair. I’d be up and allow myself the tryptophan coma after the meal along with everyone else. We always had guests who had no other place to go and couches and bunk beds for those too trytophanned to drive home.
Helping others is a great way to get through the holidays. The fast-track to healing is by helping others. I also make a gratitude list as I prepare to say goodbye to one year and hello to the next. January is both a new beginning and a return to the most painful day of my life. I try to keep myself busy, swamped, really. I don’t think it’s avoidance; I think it’s survival, and I think it’s even a desire to move forward.
In the early days of grief, I would force myself into good humor, but now I actually long for it and make it happen. I go for a walk. I take our grandson to the park and watch him with whatever new contraption he just had to have for Christmas. I watch with gently glistening eyes and I think about my own little boy, a tiny person with excitement the size of Texas, fighting his way out of wrapping paper and heading back to bed.
There is so much to be grateful for – despite our losses. How will you survive the holidays? Share your strategies with others who may not have the strength yet to figure it out on their own yet. I used to think that Christmas would be as difficult as Thanksgiving, but it’s not. Birthdays, anniversaries, and memories of milestones do carry with them that damned bittersweetness that can temporarily send you into a funk, but if we can just remember, the pang is a flash in the pan; we can get through it.
Crank up your favorite music, break out the cookies or the cognac, and let the season melt away the iciness of grief for the day, and remember your loved ones and the things that make you laugh and smile about them. I don’t do the place setting at the table, but I do take a few ceremonious puffs of my son’s favorite cigar and I talk to him. I shed a few tears and then I wipe them off my face and I go back into the house and I rejoin the party, just as I have rejoined life, one holiday at a time.
Happy holidays to you and yours. Even in your grief, may you find some twinkling lights that warm your heart.
About the Author-----
Sherrie Ann Cassel is a writer and blogger. She writes about grief, addiction, and healing, after losing her only child to the disease of addiction. She has written a book of poetry called Love Songs to a Junkie Son, chronicling the chaos of her son’s final years and the aftermath of his death. Sherrie holds a B.S. in psychology and is planning to attend graduate school with an emphasis on positive psychology. She has been published in Addiction.com and Grief Digest. She lives in Joshua Tree with her husband, Ben, and their three grouchy cats.
Grief to Gratitude: https://grieftogratitude.home.blog/