My Journey of Navigating Grief During the Holidays
Repost from December 20, 2017
The holidays are never an easy time for people who are suffering from loss. For my family, the firsts we celebrated without my husband Andy after he died were ones of great heartache.
It wasn’t just the pain of his absence, but also from the fact that our lives had ‘Forever Changed’. Everything we knew and loved doing as a family was going to be much different and required us to decide how we took each step forward without him.
The things we enjoyed most about the holidays had now become a constant reminder that the person that once occupied half of my heart was no longer standing next to me taking part in the traditions that made up everything we loved about this time of year.
The simple thought of having to attend a family gathering, send a Christmas card, attend parties, etc. made me want to curl up in a ball and cry. I’m incredibly thankful for my three beautiful children who give me a reason to keep getting out of bed every day even if it takes every ounce of energy I have. ￼
It had only been about 4 months after Andy’s death when the numbness had started to fade, and the razor-sharp stabs of his absence began to radiate throughout my body.
Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and the thought of having to attend a family gathering without him was almost too much to bear.
Would I sit there and stare at the turkey with tears streaming down my face as I remembered how we’d eat too much and fall asleep on the couch watching football?
Would I get angry with rage, because the rest of my family had their spouses sitting next to them at the dinner table while I sat there across from an empty chair no longer occupied by my own?
Or would I opt out of celebrating completely and pretend like the day never existed (Denial – I kind of liked that idea)?
I knew that it was only a matter of time as Thanksgiving drew near that I would get that dreaded email invite from a family member taking pity on us, so we wouldn’t have to sit and bask in sorrow alone. I’m pretty sure that what I interpreted as pity, at the time, was nothing short of the comfort that my family wanted to give us and needed just as much as we did.
Reluctantly, after receiving the first invite, I said yes and my family (minus Andy) went to spend that holiday with my sisters’ family. My sister, Amy, is the oldest of four children in my family and in many ways, has been my best friend and protector from the time I was young. She wasn’t naive of the fact that the holidays weren’t going to be easy for us, but didn’t hesitate to ask us to spend it with them knowing that with much pain came great healing.
Healing is something that we’ve had to do much of over the past two and a half years and as you may already know getting a wound to heal is a process of constant tending to. I remember Summer time as a child when I’d ride my bike up and down the gravel roads with my friends. Sure enough I’d fall off, look down, and see blood running down my knees. It hurt like hell as my knees began to get swollen and throb, but within a few days the pain would lessen, and scabs would start to form over my once bloody knees.
Sure enough, just as I had almost completely forgotten about my injury I would take another dive off my bicycle and gashed the wounds back open again feeling the pain rock through my body once more. I’m sure I thought to myself at the time, ‘Why do you keep doing this to yourself Erin? You know it hurts and yet you keep riding your bike on the gravel roads taking a chance that you’ll fall of it again.’ I never thought twice about getting back on my bike every day of every Summer, because regardless of the risk of feeling that awful pain again I didn’t want to miss out on the adventures with my friends.
The past few holidays have most certainly brought back those memories of my childhood where I ask myself ‘why do you keep doing this to yourself Erin?’
The first holiday after his death was one of normalcy…where I thought if I kept our normal traditions for the family everything would be somehow the same, which only ended up leaving a gaping hole of Andy’s absence.
The second holiday was one of tradition avoidance. That is where we decided to avoid all normal holiday traditions by creating something completely new. While we enjoyed the newness of it, the deafening absence of Andy was still there and we missed out on some of the things we enjoyed celebrating with him the most.
This year (holiday #3) I decided to combine some of my childhood traditions of baking cookies with the kids, sending Christmas cards (which for the first time EVER I ordered in early October) and spending time with loved ones. I’ve gotten into the spirit of Christmas so much so that I’ve hosted a family holiday party, a cookie swap with my friends (aka an excuse for moms to get together without children), and coordinated the Christmas party for my son’s hockey team.
At the end of the day when all the parties were over and I began to think about not having Andy here to give a special gift to for Christmas I found myself curled up in a ball on my couch sobbing like a baby in the paws of our chocolate Labrador while she licked the tears away from my face. I suppose my need to embrace old traditions had once again ripped open the scars of my healing heart and left me painfully aware of the loss that still exists.
For you see, as time goes by no matter how much normalcy or change we’ve tried to establish in our traditions the reality is that the traditions as we’ve known them have ‘Forever Changed’.
Our new tradition is that we become aware of what our family needs and adapt our celebrations accordingly. We can choose to participate in the old or avoid them all together. We can decide to do something completely new and never do it again.
You may have gotten knocked off your bike a few times throughout your life, but you’ve chosen to jump back on and maybe even take a new path this time. You may choose a safer path this time or follow the old where you take great risk of getting hurt again.
Regardless of which path you choose, you are now braver, stronger, and more prepared than ever before for whatever is to come (maybe this time you wear knee pads. LOL). This new path will bring excitement as well as an acute level of uncertainty, because you now know the dangers that lay ahead.
All I can say is embrace it and know that at the end of the day you may be curled up in a ball getting the tears licked off your face or you may possibly have found the greatest new joy of your life.