Holiday really bring out the pain of loss
My late husband and I each grew up with parents who went a little bit overboard on Christmas. Sometimes a lot overboard. Then all the years we were dating, we spoiled each other for the Christmas season. I remember vividly he proposed to me on December 23rd. Afterwards, he took me into Manhattan by stretch limousine to enjoy a long day of holiday excitement in the city, including a lavish dinner at Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Our first child was also the first grandchild for both of our sets of parents. She was born on Halloween, so they all had plenty of time to prepare for Christmas. I think it’s probably a universal tradition that the first grandchild is spoiled somehow. During the 4 and a half or so years that followed, 2 more children joined our crew.
Needless to say they were all equally adored. Chris and I always set a budget for Christmas and attempted to stick with it. We also support giving initiatives through our church, the kind where you select paper ornaments off giving trees to shop for anonymous recipients in need of some support. We would sponsor a family through another program to provide food for families who were struggling, and drop off toys to collection locations for the Toys for Tots program, which is strongly promoted by the United States marine corps. There were donations to the Stockings for Soldiers program. And every year Chris would bring home Letters to Santa made available by the United States post office in New York City, and we would fill the wishes written in them as best we could.
When Chris was killed, our daughters were ages 12 and 9. Our son had turned 8 less than 3 weeks earlier. The first Christmas without him was brutal. I wanted us to celebrate the holiday but my heart wasn’t in it. Of course, the meaning of the holiday was just as important as ever. We are Catholic, so celebrating the meaning for the holiday was based in faith, and was unchanging. Plus, I was trying to make sure that our children understood that they could still be happy about it despite the tragic death of their Dad.
( Denise and the kids, Christmas 2012)
A tough lesson to teach when I certainly wasn’t feeling it.
There was absolutely no way I could keep up all the traditions Chris and I had for so long. I made sure we still provided meals through our church program for helping others, and our kids packed the bags with our donations. That first Christmas after his death, I think that was the only tradition of giving I was able to maintain outside of the family. Figuring out what to give our children for Christmas was a nightmare. Even though I couldn’t drive because of my disability, I did have a couple of people willing to take me out shopping. I actually went a couple of times. I remember crying where they take the photos of people with Santa in the mall. And crying near the food court. And in Brookstone. And in the Disney Store. You get this soggy picture. Memories and the sadness were as disabling as my multiple sclerosis.
So, what do you do about it all? How do you manage the pain?
This is going to be the eighth Christmas since my husband was killed. The eighth Christmas since their Dad went to work but never made it home. Is it easier now than it used to be? Of course it is. You build up pain tolerance. Emotional callouses. You create new traditions and new ways to celebrate.
Change is part of life, and part of growing up. When I was a kid my family had a particular set of traditions around Christmas. During the years Chris and I were dating, my holiday routine changed to incorporate him and the things his family did. When we got married and set up our own household there were more changes, and still more when we had our first child. Adapting to change is just the way it goes in life.
Based on my own experience, and borne out by conversations with too many other widowed people, I think it is often easier for a child to adapt to the loss of a parent then for an adult to adapt to the loss of a life partner – assuming we are talking about good relationship. I have observed that children seem to have incredible levels of resilience. Plus, as crucial as a parent is to the development of a child, eventually that child builds an independent life whether or not they have 1 parent, 2 parents, or none at all. In most cases kids go on to have their own relationships with other people.
I am not a counselor or therapist, not an expert on grief or coping … I am just an expert on the path I have been thrown onto and live through each day. There are times that are harder for me than others. Some of the toughest times are predictable and some take you by surprise in a vicious sneak attack.
Christmas around our house has been molded by grief and physical disability into a celebration that as no resemblance to what I ever expected. I can’t take my kids to church, prepare a delicious meal, set a beautiful table. I don’t have anyone to consult with about gift ideas, go to be a co-conspirator in plotting holiday surprises.
More often than I like to admit, I see or read about something online and think, “Chris would have liked that!” It’s involuntary. It’s just part of how my brain is wired after so many years with him.
Society will generally rally round the grieving for a brief time. Then after a few weeks people sort of fade away. It’s a natural thing – their lives don’t stop just because yours was dealt a terrible blow. If you’re part of a big family, it might be different. If you’re connected to the military, to a Police Department or a Fire Department, you will have much more support. But it still has to taper off. You can’t live constantly in a black hole of despair, and neither can those around you.
What do you do when you’re 2 years after your loss and a song comes on that makes you cry and then start replaying in your mind a lot of memories then longing for those days? When it’s 5 years after and memories of a trip you took together are stuck on an endless loop in your mind, and making you so sad? When it’s 8 years after your loss and thoughts of the coming holidays make you wish so badly that you could go back in time, it makes you want to scream?
I can only tell you that you’re not alone. Grief doesn’t have a timeline or an expiration date. It is not one size fits all or one type fits all. As long as you aren’t losing yourself in self-destructive behaviors, or locking yourself away in the dark for days on end, then you should be able to experience and express your feelings without judgment or criticism.
When expanded From In Here website launches in about a month, there will be chat boards to give you a safe place to exchange thoughts, feelings and support with other people. You can always email me (email@example.com) or send me a message on Instagram (@frominhere) if you need to vent or anything at all.