I’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.
In 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.
So 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.