“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

I did something the other day that most people probably wouldn’t understand. I specifically went into the Christmas aisles at a our local big-box store to test myself. I wanted to see how I would react to seeing all of the Christmas stuff that is now arriving on shelves in force. I wanted to see how badly the vise would constrict around my heart this year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. Perhaps I wanted to begin preparing myself for the onslaught of reminders that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – or, at least, the implications that it should be. For some people, it’s not. You see, this time of year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach is always a tricky time filled with potential landmines for a parent who has lost a child.

The vise doesn’t constrict as much as it once did, but I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that it still does and probably always will. I find that I still have to concentrate on breathing the first time I see a Christmas display. I feel it like a jab right in the heart. I see people already posting online about being so excited that Christmas is coming, that they are already playing Christmas music, that Christmas is the best time of the year for them. For some people, it is. For others – for me – it’s not exactly the Hallmark/Norman Rockwell Christmas or Thanksgiving any more. I feel like it used to be that way, and I had so much fun planning the Thanksgiving menu and couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive. Oh, the traditions, the food, the conspiring on what special present to buy, the music, the lights. I loved it all!! I could barely function that first Thanksgiving. That first Christmas was torture. The second wasn’t much better.

I have to admit I still feel like I trudge through part of it at times – not all, but part of it – because I don’t feel the unabashed wonder and enthusiasm that I used to. It’s hard to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas (or even most holidays) without acutely feeling Jason’s absence. What I try to do now is to focus on making Christmas special and meaningful in some way for those I love. But, it’s still a tricky time for me, and I sometimes really have to concentrate on focusing on the positives while being aware of the holes in my life and sidestepping the landmines that are inherent with the holiday territory.

As the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons approach, I’d like to offer an early reminder. If you are a bereaved parent, I hope you will take time to be gentle with yourself. I hope those around you take time to be thoughtful, kind, generous, and gentle with you. You don’t have to do it all. Do what you can and let the rest go. Try to remove as much pressure on yourself as you can. You don’t have to do everything you used to do. You may want to keep some traditions and/or start some new ones. It’s okay. Do what feels right to you for your family and whatever you feel honors the child you lost.

For those who know a bereaved parent, perhaps you could start thinking now about how to do something kind and thoughtful for that parent that may take a bit of sting out of the season. You can’t “make it better,” but you CAN do something. Perhaps you could send a note, telling of a special memory you have of their child. A parent never gets tired of hearing that his/her child is not forgotten or hearing a story that brings a memory to life. Perhaps you could include the bereaved family or a sibling in something. They may say no, so don’t take it personally. But they may need something to look forward to and say yes. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, assuming everyone else captures the same joy at Christmas, and forgetting that there are those who really struggle with loss and its aftermath during this time of year. It’s easy to assume that everyone else is enjoying the holiday season as much as you are. Even after eleven years, I still struggle with the approaching holidays and still feel at times that I’m on the outside looking in at everyone else’s joy and enthusiasm. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the holidays. It’s just that they aren’t quite the same for me any more.

I’ve written before about Christmases after Jason died: A Bereaved Parent’s Christmas; My Christmas Wish for Bereaved Parents; Christmas Day; Christmas Season – Not the “Same as Always” This Year; Caution! Rough Sea Ahead!. Here is an entry from my journal dated 12/25/2003:

It’s Christmas Day. It’s sort of been a mixed bag. I have had such a hard time getting anything done to get ready for Christmas. Doing things to get ready for Christmas meant that I had to focus on another holiday without Jason. How can we celebrate when Jason is gone? I have been trying so hard to figure out how to keep Christmas special for the rest of us without it seeming wrong to celebrate when Jason isn’t here to celebrate with us. It’s just not easy. When I went into stores to look for presents, my heart just felt like it was being crushed or squeezed by a vise. I couldn’t breathe. I would feel panic-y and have to leave before I got anything. It’s so hard to do the things we used to do. It’s just not the same.

No more all going out together on a Christmas-tree-finding adventure. How can it be the same to find and decorate a tree without our boy? Jason was the one who put the angel on top of the tree. We’d bring the tree home, put on some Christmas music, and then all decorate the tree together. I’d unwrap the ornaments and everyone would put their own ornaments on the tree. We’d put up the stockings by the fireplace. Our stockings would eventually be filled with fun stocking stuffers we had bought each other. Such a fun, festive, family time.

It’s been so hard to figure out what to do with the stockings. What do we do with the stockings now? Do we hang them up? Do we put things into the stockings for each other? How do we fill four out of five stockings? Jason’s would look so empty. We can’t not put his up. Every decision seems to have so much emotion tied to it. Everything seems to emphasize Jason’s absence.

It’s been such a hard Christmas. I tried so hard to get in the “Christmas spirit,” whatever that is any more, but I don’t think I ever succeeded. I really tried, but just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm.

On Christmas Eve, Joe, Jenna and I went out to dinner. We honestly were all trying our best to put on our happy faces and have a good time, but we just seemed like a sad little group, I’m afraid. It just wasn’t the same. We all used to go out to dinner for Asian food and then to the candlelight church service. We’d talk and laugh and have the grandest time, full of joy at being together and anticipation of Christmas morning surprises. It was part of our Christmas tradition. Now what do we do?

We came home after dinner and watched Miracle on 34th Street. Both Jenna and I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of it. When we went to bed, tears just started flowing. I couldn’t keep up the pretense any more. I am just so sad.

I got up really early this morning to make cinnamon rolls, just as I used to do. I just wanted to cry the whole time. Do we try to keep traditions we used to have or what do we do? It’s just so hard to carry on with things we used to do. It hurts so much. I don’t know what the balance is. Both Joe and Jenna came down as I was mixing up the dough. I guess they couldn’t sleep, either. After I got the dough made to rise, we went back to bed. I realized that Joe was crying. I asked him if he was okay, and he said he was just so sad. We just held each other and cried.

The day improved once Eric arrived to eat cinnamon rolls with us and open presents. Later in the day, [our friends and their family] came over to have Christmas Day dinner with us and we had a good time together. We played games and went to see a movie. Don’t know what we would have done without them. I’m afraid it would have been a long day.

I don’t know. It seems at times we just go through the motions, but it doesn’t seem to have the same “heart” as it used to. How can we? Our hearts are broken. A huge part of our family is gone. Nothing is the same.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

“Is anyone in here against drunk driving?!”

From my journal dated February 24, 2003:

I had a very unsettling thing happen today.

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do to mark the first anniversary coming up on March 3rd. I wanted to to something meaningful to honor Jason. I decided to take the poem Jason had written, “The Return,” and print it on cards to send out to family and friends. I took the poem to the printer a couple of days ago, and they called today to ask me to come in and okay the proof before they actually print it.

I went to the print shop and was looking at the proof when someone came in the door behind me. I was just minding my own business, trying not to cry at the significance of what I was doing, and didn’t even look up to see who it was or notice why the young man was there. As he burst through the door, the young man enthusiastically yelled, “Is anyone in here against drunk driving??” A kid behind the counter (not the person helping me) piped up and yelled enthusiastically in return, “I’m all FOR drunk driving!!” and then they started laughing hilariously.

I couldn’t believe my ears! I turned and looked at the kid behind the counter square in the eyes and said, “That’s not even funny. A drunk driver killed my son.”

I know he is young. I know he was just being flip and trying to be funny, but it was not funny! Drunk driving is not funny – it kills people!!! I was shaking so much I could hardly sign my name to okay the proof. He waited until I was done, and then came over to apologize.

I realize he didn’t have any clue about Jason. What were the odds of me, the mother of a child killed by a drunk driver, being right there right then? But it really shook me. Such a casual and celebratory attitude toward drunk driving, something that has indelibly changed our lives forever!

Who knows? Maybe I planted a seed in his mind that will make him think twice before driving drunk or allowing his friends to get behind the wheel drunk. Maybe it was one of those “divine appointment” things that could make a difference in his life. I don’t know. I hope his mother never has to grieve the death of her son because of drunk driving. I wish no mother ever did.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Caution! Rough sea ahead!

I can feel it starting – that restless feeling, that vague agitation that seems to rise from the depths about this time every year.

This is a hard time of year for me. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. They march toward me in rapid, unrelenting succession. Jason loved doing fun things on Halloween. Carving pumpkins. Christmas surprises. Thanksgiving and Christmas were fun, family holidays. Traditions. Hearth, home, family. So much has changed.

All holidays and “event” days (such as birthdays, March 3rd, etc.), to some degree,  can trouble the water on which my boat of life sails and rock my boat in ways I may not expect. I used to feel like the waves of emotion and longing would capsize or sink my fragile little boat out there on the huge sea of grief. The waves aren’t as high and scary as they used to be, and I’ve learned to recognize why my boat is rocking and try to roll with the waves until smoother seas prevail. I’ve learned, however, that the potential for rough seas continues to lurk not too far below the surface.

When I was in junior high, our school had a living biology lab (pond included) out in back of the school that was surrounded by brand-new barbed wire. The site had a stile over the fence on the far right-hand side that we were supposed to use for access. Most kids, though, would separate the two rows of barbed wire and climb through at the most convenient location. The first time I climbed through the fence, as someone held the two rows apart for me, I didn’t get my left leg quite high enough and a barb on the lower wire sliced my left knee open diagonally from one side to the other. I ended up having nine stitches and still have a large, prominent scar on my knee cap. I also ended up being used as an example to the entire school of why we are supposed to obey school rules.

It surprises me that, even thirty-something years later, my left knee is still much more sensitive than my other one. When I bump it a good one, I cringe from the pain. It hurts! People notice the ugly scar; little kids ask what happened.

That’s similar to what happens the first time I see the Christmas displays go up in stores each year. I feel like someone just walked up and thumped me in the chest right where my broken heart resides. It hurts! It brings tears to my eyes. It brings front and center – smacks me right in my face – how much I miss Jason, all the things that were, and the things that might have been. All the things that could have been, should have been.

I take a deep breath and take a minute to recognize where my reaction is coming from. Sometimes just the recognition of why I hurt helps. Sometimes I have to leave the store and come back another time. Sometimes I just miss Jason too much to keep on shopping or going on like nothing happened. I need to stop, recognize what’s going on, and take time to think about Jason. Sometimes I need to cry. I need to take time to pay attention and carefully navigate the rough sea I’m on.

The impending approach of the ten year anniversary of Jason’s and Alina’s deaths, in addition to the approaching holidays, seems to be making me more reflective and emotional than usual. It looks huge to me. Ten years. How can it have been ten years? How can I have lived ten years without my precious boy? Have I lived them well? Have I made a difference? Have people forgotten him? Have I honored his memory adequately? Would he be proud of me? What can I do that’s meaningful to signify the loss that day represents? What can I do to bring something good and meaningful out of this terrible tragedy?

All I can do is the best that I can do. I’m taking the time now to realize there might be rough seas ahead and to think about how to navigate them to the best of my ability with the resources I have.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Road Trip 2001

From my journal dated January 2, 2003:

California Road Trip 2011 - Disneyland

This was the first day in a while I’ve been home alone. Joe, Jenna and Eric all had to work today. It’s not as hard as it used to be, but it’s not easy, either.

I cleaned up the kitchen and then started cleaning the bonus room. As I was putting movies away, I ran across the video of Jason and his friends on their road trip to California in September 2001. I decided to sit down and watch it.

Jason - California 2001

It’s a very shaky home video filmed by teenagers, but it was so good to see Jason again like he he was – alive and having so much fun.

It didn’t upset me at first as I was watching it. Jason was having so much fun; it made me smile. But, the more I watched it, I started to feel worse and worse physically. I don’t know if it was the shaky video or some physical grief reaction, but I ended up throwing up. I rarely get sick or throw up. I felt so weak, sweaty, headache-y, nauseated. I don’t know what happened! I felt awful. Ended up going to bed and slept for a while.

Oh, I miss my boy so much! I want him to be alive and having fun. He enjoyed life so much! He made everything fun!

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Baby Dedications

From my journal dated November 24, 2002:

Today was a really hard day for both Joe and me. They dedicated three babies at church this morning. I’m really happy for the families, but it’s just hard. Every time the pastor talks about the special relationship between a father and the child, the mother and the child, or prays for God’s blessing and protection for the child, it fills me with a sad longing.

Why didn’t God protect Jason? We dedicated Jason to God. We prayed for him. I don’t understand it. I don’t know that I ever will.


From my journal October 31, 2002:

Eric and Jason - Halloween

Jason in all his different costumes over the years has been on my mind this Halloween night. I’m not a big fan of Halloween, but Joe and the kids had so much fun. Jason, especially, loved dressing up and having fun on Halloween.

One year, Eric, Jason and one of their friends dressed up in camo with their faces all appropriately painted. They would knock on a door and say, “Trick or Treat, SIR!” when anyone answered. Everyone got such a kick out of it. I think they collected pillowcases full of candy!

Buca de Beppo - Halloween 2001


Last year Jason, Jenna and some friends got dressed up and went to Buca de Beppo for dinner on Halloween.

He just loved to have fun.

Elvis died 34 years ago today

Elvis died 34 years ago today. Reports say that between 30,000 and 40,000 people gathered at the gates of Graceland today to remember him on the anniversary date of his death. Some people have shown up for years and years to remember Elvis on this day.

People trek from around the world to visit the gravesites of Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Lee, Frank Sinatra, or whatever celebrity or musician is deemed to be of importance to them. People pay big money for material possessions that belonged to Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Lucille Ball, etc.

The thing that seems odd to me is that it’s an acceptable thing to memorialize celebrities and musicians and collect things that once belonged to them…but we, as bereaved parents, are supposed to “move on.” We’re supposed to get rid of or put away nearly everything that once belonged to our child. It’s not considered “healthy” to hold on for too long to too many things that belonged to our child.

Interesting, isn’t it?