Christmas After a Loss, When You Still Have to Function

 

My mom loves Christmas. This is hardly unusual, but there’s something a little extra about the way my mom loves it and she’s always had this indescribable talent for making it special. She’s good at holding on to the traditions that matter the most, the ones that are distinctly ours, and letting go of things that add stress instead of making the holidays more fun. She would never let a Christmas go without a tea ring for breakfast, never mind that they take hours and baking would go late into the night. She’s the first to extend invites to friends who don’t have another place to celebrate and always makes sure they know how loved and wanted they are. My mom is wonderful.

On May 8th, 1990, my dad died very suddenly in an accident, a week before his 35th birthday. My mom was just 33 at the time and suddenly on her own with two kids. Our world turned upside down and she had to figure things out again from the beginning.

It’s a clich√© because it’s true – the first year after a loss is the hardest. The first everything is a reminder that the world is still turning when it feels like your life has come to a screeching halt, and you have to move with it. Growing up I could only imagine how difficult it must have been for her, but that first Christmas she showed up. She pulled out all the stops and made sure that Christmas was every bit of what it had been when my dad was still alive, because she had two little kids who needed her to. She found whatever degree of normal she could to keep us going. She helped us learn how to put one foot in front of the other when that simple act felt impossible, and to say that this very sad skill set has come in handy is an understatement.

We’ve had some sad Christmases through recent years as we went through the holidays from one pregnancy loss to the next, but then it all turned around and we were finally getting our family, the one we’d dreamed of, the one we’d waited for. I had one very pregnant Christmas with the boys, who arrived three weeks later to join their big sister, followed by the two best Christmases of our entire lives, filled with all the chaos and nonsense that we’d always wanted. Our house was full, and our hearts were overflowing. We were lucky. We had everything.

Last year was our first Christmas without Jude. Just like my mom, I was 33 and going on 34 when our world fell apart, and we had two little kids who needed us to figure out how to keep going when we could hardly process what had happened. I remember that first weekend, somehow figuring out how to put peanut butter on toast when I couldn’t feel my arms. Somehow we found ways to keep going, to put her on the school bus, to take him to the park, to coach her t-ball team. None of it felt right, but we faked it and kept their lives as normal and routine as possible while making opportunities to deal with their loss however and whenever they needed to. We were never quite sure if we were nailing it, but today we have two kids who know that they can talk to us about Jude – the happy and the sad and the scary and the funny and the whatever – any time they need to, and they’re otherwise two fantastic kids who are growing up to be caring, loving, and generous. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but I think we did okay.

When Christmas came it all felt like a lot. I dreaded unpacking the stockings that I’d knit by hand with babies sleeping in my lap. I didn’t know what to do. If we hung Jude’s stocking, he wouldn’t be here to claim it on Christmas morning, and there’d be one sad, empty stocking left on the stairs. If we didn’t hang it, I’d look at the four of them and know he was missing. I remember my mom having that same conflict that first year, not knowing what to do with my dad’s stocking. The little things, the parts of the traditions that were so personalized, felt overwhelming.

So we stepped back and took everything one step at a time. We felt it out as we went and decided which things to keep and which to let go, whether for a year or forever. We gave ourselves permission to manage the holiday however felt right and not worry too much about anyone outside our own home. Someone told me once that you need to put your own oxygen mask on first, and that’s never been truer for me than it has in this past year and a half. We bowed out of family engagements that we knew wouldn’t make us feel better. We skipped extras that felt like they’d be more stressful than fun. We made sure to focus first on what Isla and Thomas needed, the things that were fun for them and that they would need us to do for them. We took them to see Santa. We put up a tree. We put lights on the house, even though we really hate that part (we need two different ladders to put up two strings of lights, it’s nonsense). And we knew that there wasn’t much that could make us feel better last year, so we channeled our energies into making life better for others. We donate to the toy drive every year, but last year we specifically picked out a cart full of toys Jude would have loved. We gave to organizations that help families who are struggling. I gave blood. Anything we could think of that would help someone have a little easier time.

We gave ourselves permission to check out of everything that didn’t feel good, as long as Isla and Thomas were still getting what they needed, and that made all the difference. The holidays can be wonderful, but they can also be challenging and painful when the year leading up to them has been challenging. If you’re having a hard time this year, give yourself permission to look after yourself. Put your own oxygen mask first, and don’t feel badly about it. The best people in your life will understand and they’ll support you however you need them to as you survive a season that’s hard for too many people. And if people don’t understand, they’re probably not your people and you don’t need to waste your energy stressing over them.

This is our second Christmas without Jude. It’s still hard. We still miss him desperately, and we always will. But this Christmas is different because we’ve survived the first one and we’ve started to figure out what works now and what doesn’t, and that makes a difference. We’ve sorted out ways that we can love and honour Jude, even though we can’t watch him open presents and eat Kinder eggs and tea ring and be the master troublemaker in our trio. Grief is unpredictable. It isn’t linear and some years will be simpler, while others will be more challenging. We’re going to take it one year at a time, one plan at a time, one tradition at a time, one foot in front of the other.

If the holidays are hard for you, I’m sorry, and I wish there were better words for the kind of ‘I’m sorry’ this situation calls for. I hope that this year will be as kind to you as possible and that the people in your life are compassionate and supportive of what you need.

In case you’re wondering, we do hang Jude’s stocking, because the other four look wrong without his there with them. We hang his ornament and others that remind us of him (mostly penguins and Supermans). And I’m going to preheat the oven to start the tea rings, which should have been baked this morning but somehow always leave us up into the early hours of the morning.

Wherever you are and however this season is finding you, I’m wishing you all the best as you get through the season, and hopes for a better year ahead. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.

In case you were wondering, these are tea rings, and my grandmother started making them for her seven(!!!) kids for Christmas every year, and we’ve never let the tradition lapse. My mom even mailed me the ingredients I needed to bake them when I was living in Korea (I couldn’t find them in the city we were living in) and I had to borrow an oven. It’s not Christmas without these, butter, and champagne. See that clock? That’s AM. That’s typical, too.

 

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