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