Sometimes The Pressure of the Holly, Isn’t So Jolly…


DSC_0144I’ve always been a Christmas person and when I married Smart Guy and we agreed to raise our children in Jewish faith, I embraced Hanukkah as well. That makes December a big huge holiday fest each year! I love the season. I love the decorations, the socializing, the music, and all the lights and magic. The last couple of years, however, have been a challenge, and those challenges seem to have been piled up in December. I’m not alone. Or perhaps like a woman who’s pregnant notices all the other pregnant women, I’m feeling the gray around me more than usual. Several of my friends have experienced painful losses recently and it seems that much grayer, coming around the holidays and the anniversary of my mother’s death.

A year ago, I was in the depths of my mother’s sudden decline and death, which came on New Year’s Eve Day 2011. December was a blur of Hanukkah and Christmas lights, holiday  music, food, celebratory good intentions, and family and good friends offering comfort and love, while I slowly sipped a cocktail of numbness and deep sadness and watched my mother die. I was so relieved to see January, just to get out from under it all. Not that my head’s in the sand; tragedy and loss happens all year, regardless of the timing. Whether you experience that loss during the holidays or the middle of any given week or month; grief makes it hard to see the  sparkle in life. The world gets paler; all of your senses are challenged when you’re grieving. Mom’s death would have been hard whenever it happened, but the stress and loss seemed amplified by the festivities around me. In a month drenched with  music, lights, and reminders to be cheery are all around us, it can feel so much harder to just sit with sad feelings, and grieve.

It seems to me that in one breath we are a society that wants to be compassionate, or at least appear that way. Most of us know enough to show concern or say caring things, when someone we know has lost a loved one. In the the next breath, we’re also a society that wants to move through difficult things as quickly as possible. Many people are uncomfortable around grief and those who are grieving. It’s just easier if everyone feels good, if we can concentrate on the positive. I get that. However, bad things happen to people—painful things that are hard to rush through. At the holidays, all of that feels even harder because it’s a time that can elicit so many memories, regardless of loss.

This year, as the one year anniversary of her death approaches, I hear the Salvation Army bells, a hallmark of the season, and face the memory laden music that is playing in virtually every business I enter, and I miss her. The smell of a Christmas tree, the lights on the tree, chocolate Santas, instantly bring my mother to mind.  As I ready for the holidays in my own home, I can’t help but remember the Christmases we shared through the years, something that is both sweet and painful at the same time. When the entire month of December is about being with family, feeling good, celebrating— it’s hard to feel safe in just experiencing a loss, and not feeling guilty that everyone around you wants to sing Have A Holly Jolly Christmas (insert any cheer themed holiday song).

I’ve been processing the loss of my mother for close to a year now.  I’ve looked at it from countless angles and many of the sharpest points have softened; it’s not nearly so raw anymore. The finality of losing our parents however, or the people who are very important to us, is really hard to accept. It goes far beyond the intellectual knowledge that someone we love is gone, but is a visceral experience. Our parents represent such a tangible tie to who we are, where we come from, that losing them shakes places within ourselves, that few other losses shake. What the brain knows is true: they are gone, the heart fights to reject.

My mother had struggled with Huntington’s Disease for a very long time. Her decline was terrible to watch; I’ve written a lot about it. Her symptoms were obvious to most people who met her and we all (who loved her, or knew her) could see that the end was not that far away. However, when she really went downhill, it seemed so fast. When she finally died, it somehow seemed unexpected. It felt so final and shocking, no matter how strange that sounds to the outside observer. It was obviously coming, how could it have been shocking? And of course death is final. Yet those things kept assaulting me over and over; and to some degree have continued to hit me since her death.

2012-09-27_09-51-54_674In recent weeks, two close friends have also lost their mothers, and another lost her husband. In both the first cases, this happened after a prolonged illness, but as is so often the case, it was unexpected. Both women had cancer—that ugly word that we all have come to know too well. Growing up, cancer was rarely discussed and if it was, only in hushed tones. I remember a girlfriend telling me that when her mother had cancer, no one ever really discussed it with her. Her mother died while she was at school. When she came home that day, her mother was just gone… with no real explanation. Today, we all know someone who has faced cancer, and probably someone who has lost their fight with cancer. That is part of what makes it so tough: there is a fight to be had. There’s an expectation, a hope, that cancer can be beaten, at least some of the time. Strong, deserving people—people who fight and fight, and sometimes prevail, also die, and it’s so infinitely unfair that the loss is ultimately complicated by layers and layers of what ifs and whys.

My friend J’s mother fought her cancer so ferociously, so determinedly, it was hard not to believe that she would beat it. She did, for quite a while, at a time when doctors thought her chances were small. She ran a marathon; and then she held out to meet her first grandchild. She was a truly special person, who seemed to impact almost everyone who met her or knew her. She was deeply loved, and her death seems so very unfair. Smart Guy said to me, in the minutes after we got the news, “it’s so wrong that she will not get to be there for her granddaughter; she would have been such an amazing grandmother. What a loss for V (her granddaughter). Her son, our friend, had the joy of being raised by a mother that he truly admired, respected and adored. He grew up feeling very loved, and it shows in his enormous twinkle. He will go on, with the support of a wife he loves and their wonderful little girl, but their daughter has lost all that might have been, and that’s what struck us most deeply.

Ironically, the circumstances of our other friend’s loss is eerily the same. Her mother also fought cancer for a long time, under conditions that seemed medically impossible, while her family mobilized and tried to prepare to lose her. The cancer abated long enough for loved ones to hope, for her to see a new grandchild born. Both of my friends are facing the holidays with the joy of new babies, and the horrible loss of their mothers. My own heart feels bruised, for them.

My other dear friend lost her husband, a young man, to a very unexpected and rapid illness. It really looked like something he would get past, nothing too serious to worry about. Certainly he’d be back to his usual antics— he was a true jokester and humorist, a professional cartoonist. No one expected it to be fatal, least of all his wife. His death has been a terrible shock, and she is facing a life without her best friend and partner. There is little any of us can say to her; there is no reason or rhyme here.

None of these losses were due to old age. There wasn’t the slow, but inevitable slide through aging and then the end— of a life lived fully and to the proper end. And that feels so unfair.  Please, don’t read that the wrong way. Losing someone you love, no less a parent, is horrible whenever and however it happens. I am not saying that if you get to see your parents age and die of “natural causes,” the grief is any less difficult. I do think however that the added layer of dissecting the inequity of a loss that comes long before it’s natural conclusion, makes the grieving more tangled and murky. It’s so hard to rectify my memories of my mother when she was healthy, with who she became. It’s hard to untangle the mess of wishes I still harbor that my mother could have lived out her fair ending. As much as I’ve grieved the death she had, my brain can’t help but slip back into a time when I simply wished she wasn’t sick.

DSC_0139So when the holidays come around, so many things are stirred. I miss my grandmother, who helped raise me and was my rock. Huntington’s robbed her of a natural ending as well. For much of my life, my grandmother was Christmas. My mother, my grandmother, all the people I loved who are gone, come back to me during the holidays. It’s unavoidable. I find myself trying to figure out how to reformat it all, how to make December feel jolly again. I work to build happy, new memories with my own children and friends, accepting that I miss those who are gone.  As I watch my friends grieve now, I know some of their grieving will inevitably be stalled, as trees are decked and parties are had. Time will move a little slower, but it’s time that heals. There will be new holiday memories to embrace and add to those reserved for loved ones who are gone. Time will pass and wounds will be eased, though not erased. We all find our jolly again, and this year I’m looking forward to making new, happy memories. That is what sustains me.

What are your favorite holiday traditions? What do they remind you of and who have you shared them with? Are you grieving, and do the holidays make that harder or easier? Share your thoughts; share this post. Please check out the Tales From the Motherland Facebook  (click link) page and hit like. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

About Dawn Quyle Landau

Mother, Writer, treasure hunter, aging red head, and sushi lover. This is my view on life, "Straight up, with a twist––" because life is too short to be subtle! Featured blogger for Huffington Post, and followed on Twitter by LeBron James– for reasons beyond my comprehension.
This entry was posted in Awareness, Beauty, Blog, Christmas, Daily Observations, Death, Death of parent, Dying, Hanukkah, Holidays, Honest observations on many things, Huntington's Disease, Jewish, Life, Mothers, Musings, My world, Parenting, Personal change, Tales From the Motherland, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Sometimes The Pressure of the Holly, Isn’t So Jolly…

  1. I remember how important the whole gift thing was to me as a child and to my kids and how much fun it was to plan the gifts for them. From underwear to legos, it was always fun. Then it just turned into big things like computers, and stuff they’d get regardless. Now it’s not so important to any of them. Thanks for sharing.

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    • I think the gifts do get tougher Lisa… I hope I didn’t bring you down (too)? I’m sure your grandkids will love the presents again, and while it’s more challenging, there are gifts that do still thrill. 🙂 I am missing people, but looking forward to a nice holiday.

      Like

  2. mamaheidi60 says:

    I too feel the mix of being in the present while remembering Christmases past. Although my husband and I have lost parents and a sibling, it’s really only my dad whom I especially miss at the holidays. My family has always been wrapped up in tradition and my dad was certainly the patriarch. My husband’s family had no traditions at all! It’s been years since his brother, his only living relative, has spent a holiday with us – Thanksgiving or Christmas being the two biggest holidays with tradition. I feel sad for my husband’s loss and the lack of connection to his only remaining family. Both my husband and my sister’s husband have embraced our traditions and both have given rather emotional tributes at the dinner table in recent years so I know how much tradition and ritual do matter to them. That makes the sadness for their lack of connection to tradition in growing up something that is painful. On the other hand, we have changed our traditions too, no longer giving gifts to extended family, but rather making a family donation to charity (we do this together on Christmas Day, between dinner and dessert, passing around a Heifer International catalog and each person choosing from it and then writing out a check). As the third generation become adults with partners of their own joining us, we expand the table and the stories. This year, my daughter and her partner and her partner’s 4 children will spend Christmas Eve at my sister’s and wake up Christmas morning there. We’ll drive down Christmas morning and join them. It will be the first time she’s not been with us Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I can give lip service to going with the flow, but I will miss her presence at the Candlelight service, the toast with egg nog when we return and the traditional breakfast and stocking opening in the morning. I am excited that we’ll all be together for Christmas dinner.
    So, my dear Dawn, you wrote a lovely, open, honest piece here, and gave me a place to record my own feelings about this different holiday season as well. Thank you!

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    • Such a heart felt, beautiful response Mama. I can’t imagine A not with you guys on Christmas Eve and in the morning… not that I was there to experience it, but I think of you guys as a unit! I didn’t realize that she had a partner and 4 kids will certainly bring some magic to the mix. It’s too bad they can’t all just spend the night with you and then go to your sisters together, as that sounds like something that would mean a lot to you guys too.

      I love your tradition of passing around Heifer International; I love that catalog! I too think it’s so important to forge new traditions and make the holidays special for our kids and our family. I miss those I love, but I’m excited about the future too… and the new traditions we will find. 🙂

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  3. jch1006 says:

    I still wish everyday that my Mom wasn’t ‘sick’. As time passes it becomes more and more difficult to remember the woman that she use to be and not what she has become (which was her greatest fear). I love the fact that your kids have strong memories with their grandma which is sadly something my kids don’t have. We have created our own Christmas traditions for our kids but as they get older and busier it’s seems more difficult to get motivated for the ‘jolly time of year’. Well that being said as I look at our bare Christmas tree, I’m slightly more motivated to get the decorations up:)

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    • My kids don’t really remember their grammy, before she was sick, either… so I relate. Sorry to change your impression, but that is the sad reality of dementia and other diseases that change those we live. It sucks. I’m so sorry that you too are facing that; and I really understand that difficult challenge to remember who our mothers were, versus who they become. My mother too, dreaded that and resented it each time she saw it on our faces. Tough stuff for sure!

      I was noticing today that my last child at home just doesn’t want to be bothered with some of the Hanukkah traditions that I thought meant so much. Choked back a big lump in my throat… and then he said: “Actually Mom, I think latkes would be fun to serve to my friends tonight!” Ahhh. 🙂 Happy holidays!

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  4. Pingback: How Do You Say Goodbye? « A Kiss Of Bliss

  5. meagan mac says:

    This is beautiful, Dawn. I’m glad you kept going! And I know your readers are, too! I love how honest you are about this subject. You capture so well the weird psychic terrain we travel through as we grieve and how illness messes with our memories. I particularly like this paragraph:

    “None of these losses were due to old age. There wasn’t the slow, but inevitable slide through aging and then the end— of a life lived fully and to the proper end. And that feels so unfair. Please, don’t read that the wrong way. Losing someone you love, no less a parent, is horrible whenever and however it happens. I am not saying that if you get to see your parents age and die of “natural causes,” the grief is any less difficult. I do think however that the added layer of dissecting the inequity of a loss that comes long before it’s natural conclusion, makes the grieving more tangled and murky. It’s so hard to rectify my memories of my mother when she was healthy, with who she became. It’s hard to untangle the mess of wishes I still harbor that my mother could have lived out her fair ending. As much as I’ve grieved the death she had, my brain can’t help but slip back into a time when I simply wished she wasn’t sick.”

    Thank you for sharing this. Really lovely.

    Like

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