Traditions help us deal with change, loss
Since my mom’s passing in August, many people have given me books and resources to help with the grief. They’ve all been helpful in different ways, but there was a passage that struck a chord in my heart and has been on my mind continually.
It said, “When you lose a parent, you lose your past; when you lose a spouse, you lose your present; when you lose a child, you lose your future.”
After I read it, I sat in the quiet for a long time. Those words sunk in and helped me realize why my dad, sister, and I are experiencing grief in different ways. While we’re all struggling in our everyday lives without her, my sister and I often say, “Remember when mom …” or “Mom would have loved …” or “Mom used to do it this way or that way.”
But I see my dad’s daily loneliness, his sadness over entering an empty house, reaching for the phone only to realize he can’t call her, the missing chair at the table or on the dance floor while my sister and I have a partner.
We’ve lost our mom. Our dad lost his soul mate. Both are terribly hard. Just different.
With the passage from the grief book in mind, it’s no wonder I’ve been thinking a lot this holiday season about my childhood Christmases. They always seemed to start with the Asheville Christmas Parade. My sister and I grew up dancing and twirling the baton so inevitably each year we were significantly underdressed as we leaped or twirled our way down Patton Avenue. Once the parade concluded, my family would go to the former Three Brothers Restaurant and sip hot chocolate until we warmed up. My dad was friends with the owners, so they always gave us extra, extra whip cream.
We always got our Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving. In early childhood, we had an artificial tree which we adorned with entirely too much tinsel and popcorn. My mom was never one to care about an intricately decorated tree with a color scheme. She just wanted us to have fun decorating it, and that we did!
Elves on the Shelves weren’t available for adoption in those days, but we had our own daily ritual that excitedly pulled my sister and me out of bed each morning. Individual Advent calendars hung on our doorknobs, and every night, my dad would write poetic riddles on small sheets of paper that sent us around the house on scavenger hunts to find small gifts like flavored lip gloss, a pair of Christmas socks, or a box of candy. We loved the gifts, of course, but the thrill of the search was the most fun part. My dad was an English major, so the riddles were festively creative and always rhymed. I wish I still had those little pieces of paper.
Another ritual was lighting all of the candles on the coffee table. We didn’t have tea lights or Yankee Candles or Scentsy warmers or essential oil diffusers. We just had old-school candles shaped like reindeer, snowmen and Santa Clauses. We would watch the flame burn while eating snacks and waiting until 8 p.m. on the dot when “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” came on the TV. Because I’m sure as you remember, if you missed the one night these movies came on, you were sorely out of luck. There was no Netflix or Amazon Prime to make the movies correspond with the family’s schedule.
On Christmas Eve, my sister and I slept in her “big bed” which I later realized was only a double but seemed so big when I was a tiny girl. She and I would whisper and giggle late into the night until one little blonde head and one little brown head finally fell fast asleep.
Bright and early the next morning, we pulled our parents out of bed completely unaware of their lack of sleep. With all of our hair disheveled, our teeth unbrushed, and pajamas on, we tore into our gifts. We squealed over Cabbage Patch Dolls and bicycles and Strawberry Shortcake figurines. Despite their exhaustion, my parents watched with utter joy and contentment. And as a mom myself, I now understand why.
I’ve realized since August that when your childhood is quintessential in all the right ways, losing a family member is so hard. But the memories are so very precious and serve as a beacon of light for me as I make my own way and create my own story in this lifetime.
It seems so strange that my mom won’t be here for Christmas when she was the cornerstone of everything related to the day and embodied the spirit of the season.
This week, my dad started a new tradition by picking up the boys from school and taking them one at a time to buy a Christmas gift for me, their dad, and their brother. I met with him last night over coffee, and he has detailed lists of the various gifts he’s gotten the grandchildren, asking me to assess if all seems adequate and fair. Throughout our time of grief, he’s demonstrated the most beautiful combination of deep grief and hopeful optimism. I admire him so much for this.
As these final days before Christmas come and go, a lot of folks are on my mind. Those who longingly lament the past, those who struggle for a new daily normal, and those who ache for a future that will never be.
The holidays are a hard batch of weeks for those with grieving souls, but they are also a time to honor, remember, and hope. Like my dad, I hope to find a harmony between the dark and the light, and having two sweet little boys who are creating their own childhood memories, I’ll do my best to make that happen.