Christmastime, for many, is a time of dealing with loss.
For me, one such Christmastime was the one following my father’s passing when I was a little girl. He had a fatal heart attack just a couple of months earlier. My mother moved through the Thanksgiving holiday by doing what she did best. She invited people to dinner and cooked and baked hour after hour. The invitees were all who would have otherwise been alone. Today, I suspect she did this not only out of generosity but as a diversion for herself and me. Whatever the reason, it took 14 people to begin to fill the vacancy left by my father.
Christmas itself was more challenging than Thanksgiving. Mom had no interest in decorating. She baked, but her yuletide cheer was unavailable. I realize now, with some regret, I never talked to her about it. As an adult, I can certainly understand but have no idea how she made it through as well as she did. Perhaps, I had some hand in that.
I handled my father’s passing differently. It was the beginning of my rolling with life and moving forward in spite of its challenges; with varying degrees of success, but moving forward nonetheless. In that spirit, I went up into the attic and pulled out the Christmas decorations. It symbolized staying in contact with normality and refusing to recognize the apparent changes that had been wrought unwelcome in my life. I suppose a psychologist would say it was avoidance. And I’m sure, to some extent, they would be right. To my mother’s friends, however, they interpreted it differently. They saw my actions as not being affected by my father’s passing. At any rate, no one knew how to talk to a little girl who had lost her father, so no one did.
We all deal with the loss of loved ones differently. Some of us independently; others ask for advice from friends. But Christmas gifts us a particularly tricky time of navigation. The changes being made more poignant. We know too well there will be forever forward, the “before” Christmases and the “after” Christmases. We are keenly aware that outsiders are observing. They too, do not know what to do, and so they stumble awkwardly, giving advice when asked; practicing avoidance; or otherwise overcompensating.
The one grieving and picking their way through the holiday often experiences difficulty in making the simplest of choices. Hang the ornaments they shared with their loved one? Accept an invite, knowing that they are no longer “a couple”? Will cheerfulness be perceived as apathy? But who wants to be around someone who is sad at Christmastime? How do we balance being desolate and bereft of all Christmas cheer with the need to find some way to move from one day to the next? What do we do about the vacant chair at the table; the empty or missing stocking?
Some hang the ornaments in defiance, as did I as a little girl. Or turn to friends or their religion for advice and guidance; looking for approbation or ideas of how to proceed. Most will no doubt practice a mixture of the two. And still some experiencing grief will turn to drugs or some other substitution; there will be those who will not make it through the holiday.
My purpose is not to dull the holiday celebrations, but to make aware that for some the holiday is a difficult time. To make aware that if you are the one with the loss, it is a personal choice how you deal with it and that it’s okay to ask advice. Talking about it is okay. We each grieve in our way and in our own time. Grief is not linear; we will one day be “up” and the next moment “down.” Our heads will tell us one thing, but our heart will most often have its way with us.
To the observer, be aware that each side is at a loss for what to say and how to act. So to offer availability, or provide your advice when asked is preferable to saying nothing because to say nothing may be as though the missing loved one wasn’t important. That they never existed. Follow your heart and know that almost anything you offer will be right. The one grieving will no doubt understand.