This year is a blur.
The 29 months since my mother fell and broke her shoulder are a blur.
In the blur, there are facts.
My mother died.
My 14 year old soul dog died.
I lost my mother’s home.
I lost my blood family.
My mother’s 19 year old dog died.
My 3 year old cat died.
I lost my president.
I lost my job.
I lost another home.
Facts. Chapter Headings. Mile Markers.
When I look at those facts, I am numb. Still.
And yet, not completely.
Because running through the numbness, pulsing, sometimes quietly, sometimes gushing like arterial blood from a wound, is one constant: Gratitude.
On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, in an address written by Secretary of State William Seward, invited his “fellow citizens… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November… as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise…”
In the midst of a civil war no less.
It may seem a paradox, in the midst of grief and loss, to find gratitude, but what better time is there, really? When is the sanctity of peace more precious than during war? The security of home more sweet than in its absence? When is the wonder of life more obvious than in the presence of death?
Gratitude in grief is not simply a matter of “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. It’s deeper than that. More complex. And yet so simple. If we have the patience and the courage to sit with our grief, to wander with open eyes through its panoply of emotions and experiences, we cannot help but grow, we have no choice but to evolve.
Gratitude is the grace that makes that evolution possible. Without gratitude, evolution becomes devolution.
So, let us be grateful. For every death, every loss, every blow we have endured as individuals, as families, as a nation in this past year. Let us be thankful for homes lost and found, for families born and made, for beings living and dead.
If you are reading this, know that I am thankful for you. All of us meet in the grief that brings us to these words. I am grateful for your presence, silent or spoken, grateful for the hand you offer, seen and unseen, as we make our way to who and what we are supposed to be.
Bless you. Thank you.
Around 4:30 on the first afternoon of any June in our last years together, she would say, “This time _______ years ago,” and I would stop whatever I was doing to sit and listen to the story of my birth.
It was never a long story. Not full of how much pain she had withstood or how hard it had been to bring me into the world. In fact, the only real complaint she ever made was, “It was so HOT!”
“I had been to the store and it was SO hot. I had just put down the last bag and was thinking how hot it already was and it just barely June when the first pains hit. I called your daddy and told him it was time, then I put up the groceries. It was so HOT!”
I once asked her if I’d given her a lot of trouble, if it had been a hard labour.
“Not really. None of you were really all that hard. Your daddy got home, we went to the hospital. I was in labor through the night, then there you were.”
I was born at 8:03 the next morning, June 2nd. It was a Friday.
Today is my second birthday without her.
I don’t remember the first.
There is much I have forgotten — about all my life — but that first loss-filled year after her death is particularly full of holes and vagaries. And while I am not an advocate of recovering lost memories, (I believe The Universe has swallowed certain things for our own protection), I do rather wish I could remember some of The First Year more clearly than I do, if only to learn more from its pain.
The pain itself I remember vividly. Though to call it a “memory” is a mistake, for it lives with me still. Still and always.
And on my birthday most of all.
I woke in the middle of the night one night last week in sheer terror at the sudden realization that when my last cell phone died not long after she, it took with it her voice mails that I had saved. The only recordings of her voice that I had. This happened months ago, yet I was only just now realizing the loss. I got up, went to the computer, searched every file, every cloud, thinking that surely, surely, I wouldn’t have been so careless as to have saved them only on that phone.
But I was that careless. That thoughtless. That lost.
I climbed back into bed and cried for a long time, amazed — again — at the immediacy and overwhelming power of grief. A power that only gives the illusion of abating over time. A power that in many ways actually never stops growing.
This birthday finds me 1600 miles or more away from my mother’s physical remains.
The last thing I did before driving away from my home town one last time was stop at the cemetery. I stood a long while looking down at the three headstones of my family, agonizing over the fact that I’d forgotten to bring anything with which to clean the Texas Panhandle dust and dirt from the crevices.
Something else forgotten.
Finally, hearing my mother say, “It doesn’t matter, baby,” I sat down on the spiky winter grass and remembered the now decades long process of filling these three plots, of setting these three stones.
I remembered making the arrangements for my father’s Veteran’s marker. The multiple telephone calls and forms, the trip from frighteningly foreign to familiar each time I had to say aloud, “my father just died”, each time I ticked the box for “Deceased”.
I had been so young.
I remembered bringing my mother to the cemetery office to choose my sister’s. The surreality of sitting with her as she designed, piece by piece, her daughter’s headstone. So grateful for the knowledge and kindness of the owner who helped us. Grateful for it again eight years later as he led me alone through the same process for my mother.
It was even harder than I had imagined it would be.
We had discussed her headstone as we had discussed her funeral, many times. My mother didn’t care for flowers, her favourite colour was black, she preferred simple, classic lines to any sort of flourish, so, I knew the cross was perfect the moment I saw it.
She had been a devout Catholic from the time she converted in order to marry my father, and yet, in the last years of her life she seemed to withdraw from Catholicism, especially in the years following my sister’s death. In the end, she did not want a priest, no funeral mass, nothing but a rosary and a graveside service that was presided over by the hospice chaplain she had come to “love like the son I never had”. So, I felt this cross, with its straight line strength and grace so reflective of her, was a better choice than a Catholic crucifix.
“Beloved wife and mother” was out — she had made that clear. It bothered her that “that’s on everyone’s. just put my name and the dates on mine”. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t manage to leave it at just that. It just wasn’t enough.
More than once in those last years she had said to me, “No one can ever know what all we’ve been through together. We’re the only ones who can ever really know that.”
I realized that I wanted her headstone to reflect that, to reflect us, if only a little. I wanted one last and final time to say, “It’s me, Mommy. I’m here.”
My mother loved almost all things British. I don’t think many people knew that about her. She loved British history, British television — documentaries about the Royals, PBS historical dramas and to my great and happy surprise, she loved to watch Shakespeare performances with me. So, when I went looking for a way to leave a special mark on her headstone, I went, of course, to Shakespeare.
“And all my mother came into mine eyes.
And gave me up to tears.”
It’s a quote from Henry V, Act IV, Scene vi. It isn’t a quote about mothers nor about the loss of a mother. It is spoken from a battlefield by Exeter to King Henry, describing the deaths of the Dukes of York and Suffolk. Exeter refers, ashamedly, of his inability to hold back tears upon witnessing these deaths.
But, to me, it says everything about the loss of my mother. For me, they are the perfect words to mark my forever goodbye to her. So often, she comes into my eyes. And when she does, I am always given up to tears.
Sitting here writing this, so far away from where I lived with her, from where she gave birth to me, from where her physical form lies marked with those words, I realize that I am, in these almost two years following her death, being re-born.
The labour is intense. Long. Complicated. Painful.
And still not complete.
But she is with me, as she was the first time. Working with me and for me, labouring to give me New Life.
That realization comforts me, in a way, on a level, I could not have expected and cannot quite put into words.
I know only that she is here. Still and always. Just like the pain of her loss, in the pain of her loss, carrying me forward into the season in which I was first born, into the heat and light that I love and she hated.
She is here and she is saying, “Momma’s got you, baby. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
There is a phone booth. A beautiful structure of white wood and glass simplicity, it stands atop a hill in the northeastern Japanese town of Otsuchi. Inside the booth, a small shelf holds a thin spiral notebook, a ballpoint pen, and a rotary dial telephone, its black worn to a smooth shine from the clutch of countless hands, its cord curled up behind, connected to nowhere, reaching everywhere. It is called, “The Phone of the Wind”.
Since the 2011 tsunami of the Great East Japan Earthquake, survivors have come to The Phone of the Wind to call their dead loved ones. For some, it is a one-time pilgrimage of many miles and many hours to stand inside the booth and say what was unsaid before the wave overtook the town. For others, visiting the booth has become an almost habitual ritual, a place to come when even, “words are not enough”, a place to cling to the belief that their loved ones do hear them, that they may, even, make a response.
For years, I have encouraged the bereaved to speak to their dead loved ones, to talk to them, aloud and fearlessly, to call them by name, to ask for their help. The Phone of the Wind is one of the most beautiful, most literal examples of doing just that.
I encourage you to take 49 minutes to watch this documentary: The Phone of the Wind: Whispers to Lost Families.
We are more alike than we are different. And so often it is grief that binds us
It has been eighteen months. Almost to the day.
Eighteen months of loss — living with loss, working with loss, experiencing and re-experiencing loss after loss after loss.
Loss to death, yes. Professionally, every day in the work that I love and know I am meant to do. Personally, when, in the first fifteen months of life without my mother, I had to put down three precious pets, including her own Border Collie, the beloved BelleRogers.
But other losses as well. Less obvious, more insidious losses. Betrayals and desertions. Broken promises. Misplaced trust. The falling away of people and things and circumstances I had expected to carry me through the rest of my life. The loss of home and health and strength and stamina and peace. The loss of dreams. The loss of hope.
“Ambiguous losses”, “Secondary losses”.
The pain and confusion of which has been neither ambiguous nor secondary.
The eighteen hardest months of my life.
Harder than being young and broke and hungry in every way there is to be hungry. Harder than the aftermath of three miscarriages. Harder than the disintegration of a decade-long career. Harder than the dissolution of a twenty year marriage. Harder than the death of my father. Harder than the death of my sister. Harder, even, than the death of my mother itself.
Harder, because through all those other circumstances, all those other experiences and lessons, I still had her. She was with me. Even when I was not with her.
Which was much of the time.
Ours was a difficult relationship. She was not an easy mother. I was not an easy child. I think we often made it look easy, at least far easier than it was. Much of that was due to her ability to be one person outside our home and a completely different one inside it. Much of it was due to my luck in simply not getting caught at the many things I did just to get away and stay away from her — physically, emotionally, mentally Away.
Still, no matter what, no matter when, I always knew she was “there” — whether I wanted her to be or not. I think I spent much, too much, of my life, resenting rather than being grateful for that. Years when I clung too ferociously to memories of bloody lips and even bloodier words, refusing to allow myself the full benefit of the truly unconditional love that was hers, and hers alone, for me.
I thought I had let go all that during the last ten years of her life, those years we spent together. And I did let go much of it. But, I think, not all. Perhaps it is not possible to let go all. Perhaps, even, we are not meant to. Perhaps we are meant, instead, to use it to rise, to evolve into something better, into someone more.
The title of this blog is Embracing Your Grief. Looking back over these eighteen months, I can see that, despite my best efforts, I have failed to do that.
It’s not so much that I have denied my grief. Certainly I have not insisted upon some “alternative fact” to my mother’s death and its subsequent losses. And there have most definitely been times in these eighteen months when I have forced myself to take my own advice and “lean into” the pain of her loss. Those times, those nights of literal Crying Out to and for her, those days of Sitting With the literal inability to breathe in a world in which she no longer does, have, without doubt, saved what sanity I have left.
But it does not mean that I have embraced my grief.
At least not fully.
Because that requires purpose.
And for the past eighteen months, I have had very little purpose beyond just getting through one day, one moment, to the next.
For months now, I have tried to write of the grief I have felt since the night of November 8th, as I watched my greatest fears realized one Electoral College vote after another. I have tried so many times to write of this latest loss, but I have yet to get further than a sentence or two, and, most times, not even that.
It is a national grief, at least for many of us. And it goes far beyond the failure of a particular candidate to be elected to office.
Personally, Hillary Clinton was never “my candidate”. Bernie Sanders was my candidate. Elizabeth Warren could have been my candidate. Not Hillary. However, she was, and is, imminently more qualified than any of the sixteen possible opponents she faced and certainly far more able than the one who was ultimately enthroned by our outmoded, outdated Electoral College system.
But, no, I do not grieve the particular loss of Hillary Clinton as POTUS.
The losses I grieve, the losses I believe so much of the nation joins me in grieving, are much greater, much deeper, much more visceral than that.
I grieve the loss of national compassion. Of tolerance. Of empathy. I grieve the proliferation of national racism. Of greed. Of misogyny. I grieve the fact that intelligence and liberality and open-mindedness have become sins. I grieve the blow to my belief that people are basically, inherently good. That, given opportunity and information, they will make choices that reflect that inherent goodness, not only for their own best interests, but for the Common Good, for the Greater Good.
That is tremendous grief.
And it, like the grief of my mother’s death, has been more than I have been able to embrace.
Yesterday, scrolling through photographs of peaceful protests across not just my country, but the world, by women and the men who are strong enough to support them, I realized that the blow to my belief in the basic goodness of humanity has not been a fatal one.
Not by a long shot.
Yesterday, I saw my mother in the faces of those women. I heard my mother’s voice telling me as it had done from infancy that I could do, could be, anything and anyone I chose, telling me that I did not need a man to give me permission or make it possible for me to do so. I heard my mother telling me that women are the strongest creatures in the world.
Yesterday, I heard my mother remind me of my purpose.
I bear within me the same Cherokee native/Irish immigrant blood that carried her through almost nine decades of a life filled with far greater challenges than any I have ever faced. There is strength and hope in that blood. Great strength. Boundless hope.
The kind of strength and hope that allowed an uneducated 25 year old mother of a severely disabled child to look at doctors and say, “Oh, no, my child will not die. I don’t care what you say — my child will not die.” The kind of strength and hope that fought for that child’s highest quality of life for 58 years, then managed to help that life end with grace and dignity and peace.
The kind of strength and hope on which this entire nation has been built.
Yesterday, my mother reminded me of all that. Yesterday, my mother reminded me that I am her daughter.
No matter what, no matter who, no matter the loss, the heartbreak, the disappointment, the abandonment, the rejection, the fear that has occurred in the last eighteen months, and that no doubt lies ahead, I am Stephanie Dawn Monica Rogers, Betty Jo’s daughter.
Betty Jo’s purposeful daughter.
And she has given me the strength to embrace anything.
We do reap What we sew So Silence and Isolation beget Silence and Isolation As Scrooge discovered But When Silence and Isolation live side-by-side with Compassion with Introspection When Silence and Isolation are born not of Disdain not of Prejudice When Silence and Isolation arise from Fear from Doubt Then Is it truly Miserly? When the greed is not for More but for Less Then What is truly Sown? What is truly Reaped? I see her so clearly this morning. I see her sitting. Silent. Alone in her chair. Her life reduced to so few things. To so few people. Chair. Television. Water mug. Me. And I write, On these cold mornings, I miss her most. But That is Un True There is no Most There is only Always Always Always Always.
It is a day she would have loved — grey, cloudy, overcast, cool for July. She would have loved it.
She loved darkness. She loved storms and wind, and the colour black. She loved heavy things — fat furniture, big cars, chunky jewelry. Substantial, formidable things. Things Built to Last. Like she was.
By the end, one year ago today, she was none of the above. By the 29th of July, 2015, she was small, broken, bruised. One year ago today, she lay silent and immobile. Had done for almost a week. During that week, her smooth, pale skin had grown even more luminous, as though the light of her being was pressing against it from within, making its way out, pushing its way to freedom.
The last time she opened her eyes to me, they were clear, cloudless, grey points of glistening light. I gave her water which I, of course, managed to spill on her. I was crying so hard I couldn’t see what I was doing. The water was icy cold, just the way she liked it, and yet she responded very little when it hit her skin. She only weakly motioned toward the spill with a crooked finger.
Then she realized I was crying. And everything changed.
I watched her call herself back from wherever she had been, from wherever she was going, call herself back to the present, this present, my present, the present in which one of her children was crying.
“Don’t cry, baby,” she mouthed, voiceless. “Please don’t cry.”
How was it that I didn’t realize she was dying?
I, who have been watching people die for most of my life. How did I not see that my mother was dying?
Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it
For most of this year, I, like so much of the world, have been obsessed with Hamilton, an American Musical. The past two weeks have been filled with the song Wait for It on continuous loop in my head even when it’s not playing. Only today, listening to this particular verse have I understood just why.
I spent the last decade of my life with my mother. Nine years living with and caring for her, one year trying to figure out how to live without her here in the form I knew so well, the form I miss so much.
It’s not that I spent that decade waiting for anything. I wasn’t waiting for it to get easier nor for it to be done, over, finished, in some way. I wasn’t waiting for my life to begin once hers was ended. In fact, those ten years were some of the richest most fulfilling years of my life, professionally and personally, beyond and including the healing time spent with my mother.
And it was healing.
Of her four children, I was the one least likely to be chosen as Primary Caregiver in her final years. To say that our relationship for most of my life was “challenging” is the greatest of understatements. And yet the last nine years of her life allowed us to build the kind of relationship I would never have dreamed possible.
For that, I am forever grateful.
So, no, I did not spend all those years waiting. But, today, I realize that, in some ways, I have been waiting, waiting for Something during this past year since her death.
I just don’t know what it is.
I know from what my hospice patients and their families have taught me that following the death of a loved one after a lengthy illness, the Primary Caregiver is often left without an identity, with a nameless emptiness where the Caregiver identity stood for so long.
I just never expected it would happen to me.
Who am I now that I am no longer my mother’s keeper?
Who am I now that I am, officially, an orphan?
I don’t know.
Sitting here writing this as the sun sets, as I approach the actual moment 365 days after her death, I realize there is so much I do not know.
I also realize that’s ok.
Real problems never stem from not knowing. Real problems always result from thinking we know it all.
And I so do not Know It All.
Still, there are a few things I do know.
I know that, orphan though I am, I am still my mother’s daughter. Nothing can ever change that. It is its own “legacy to protect”.
And, I know they never really leave us.
Earlier today, I went for a bottle of wine. When I opened the car door to step out, this awaited me:
As some of you know, my sister, Debbie, collected pennies. This is a penny covered in something that has embedded it into the parking lot pavement and allowed a white feather to attach itself to it. Since she died in 2007, Debbie has sent me pennies at the most difficult times of my life. Today, my mother added an angel feather. And Deb out did herself, scattering pennies all around the feathered one:
No, they never really leave us. Not after the first year, not after 100 years.
…if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it.
And I will do my best to remember I’m not waiting alone.
Unsure of the date, I know only that it is Saturday, the Saturday before my first Mother’s Day without you.
How I miss you.
The world is busy with mothers and the mothered preparing for tomorrow’s festivities. I find I cannot remember ours last year, our last one together.
It had to have been in that horrible place, the one we both hated, the one which you overcame with a grace I did not and will never have. So much of that place I have forgotten. I hope it never comes back to me.
Still, I wish I could remember more clearly our last Mother’s Day together. You refused to go out. You always refused to go out. So, I brought you in something good to eat (a cherry cheesecake?) and a gift sack filled with the little trinkets, the little nothings that you loved. Those memories are clear — your silver head bent low into a bag, your beautiful face rising up with a glow, clutching a Walgreen’s nothing as though it were a Tiffany treasure.
We had little more than two months left together.
Would you still be alive if I had kept you at home? If I had let you stay there alone ten hours a day, you and your dogs, in your old chair with your television? How many more times would you have fallen without telling me, calling the paramedics to come get you up before I got home? How many more times would the smell of something burning have awoken you to remember you’d put something on the stove before the old house burned down around you three?
Would that have been better than that last year as it was, where it was?
I do not know.
There is so much I do not know.
I know only that I miss you. With a magnitude, to a depth, I could not have imagined while you were still with me.
“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
You said that so often. And always, I gave the same reply.
“Yes, I will.”
But, I did not know.
How could I?
Most likely you did.
Not just because you knew everything — in your last years, you simply exhaled wisdom so that even your silences were schooling — but, not only that. You knew because you had lost your own mother. Because you had lived most of my life without her — years and years and decades without her, and so you knew just how fathomless the pain would be, just how total, how all-encompassing, the solitude of being Motherless would be.
“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
Yes, I do.
The wind you loved blows hard across me out here. I brave it only for the sunlight you despised, the sunlight without which this child of yours cannot survive. Still, it is strong, your wind, and soon it will win over the sun and I will step back inside, grateful that its sound, at least, may follow me.
But now, just for now, let me sit in my sunshine, as your wind blows, carrying with it the memory of your crooked fingers scratching my back, the sweetness of your smile when I walked into the room, the mother-only tenderness of your voice calling me, “Momma’s old sweet baby”.
Thank you for giving me this life. It is such a blessing, such a beauty, such a wonder.
But right now, I would give it all and all and over again, for just one moment’s glimpse of you.
My mother loved clothes. She kept them well. She wore them well. In the years after we all left home, in the years after my father’s death, she began allowing herself to buy more and more clothing. Never anything too expensive or extravagant. She didn’t need that. She could turn Walmart into couture simply by putting it on. She loved crisp, clean lines. She loved blazers and starched button downs and pairs of what she called “good shoes”. She loved silk scarves and the wide, shiny rings she called “bling” in her later years.
All she ever wanted to do was to die at home, sitting in her old chair, surrounded by the things she loved. That was what I wanted so to be able to give her. Instead, during the last two years of her life, my mother had to move four times, each time culling through her things, winnowing out the closets full of clothes she loved so much until the last of her belongings fit into three large bags and a couple of boxes brought from the shared room in the nursing home where she died.
Yesterday, almost five months to the day after her death, I went through those bags and boxes. It seemed the proper way to end the last year of her life.
As a grief counselor, I have heard many stories about the sorting of things. Some good, some not so much. I once saw two brothers come to physical blows over their father’s ancient, ragged, and urine-filled recliner. Things are so much more than things when they are all that is left.
Often I’m asked about the “proper time” to keep things, the “proper time” to let things go. Of course, there is no “proper time”. Textbooks say that leaving a dead loved one’s room untouched past the first anniversary of her death may be a symptom of “complicated grief”. They say the same thing about getting rid of belongings within the first month. I don’t believe either of those things. Not professionally, not personally.
Something happens when we sort through the last tangible vestiges of the dead. Something sad and painful and comforting and beautiful. It is more than the memories called up by their things; it is deeper, more visceral than that. It is something that rises and falls in its own rhythm, a rhythm not bound by time passing on a clock or a calendar. For some, it happens with furious speed, within weeks or even days after the death. For others, it is a slow hum of years, a largo of waiting and touching, picking up and replacing, diving in then avoiding for weeks or months or years at a time.
For me, it was yesterday. The last afternoon of the last year of my mother’s life. I spent it with her. With her things. With the clothes that no longer smelled like her no matter how I longed for them to. With the pieces of bling and silk scarves and fuzzy socks and yellowing books of prayer she had not already dispersed to those she loved. I touched and held and petted and stroked. I cried. I talked to her. I thanked her. I held her. And she held me in each of those last shining bits that reflected so much of who she was. Of who she will always be. A strong and beautiful woman. Gracious. Classy. With a wicked sharp tongue and a wit to match. My mother. Momma. Mommy.
I miss you so much. I love you so much. Happy New Year.
So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches. This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.
This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing. I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?
Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year. The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times. Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.
I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed. What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning? (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…) So, I began culling and cutting the Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four. Four is a number I can manage. At least most days. I hope you can, too.
#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver. Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers. And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place. Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.
S L O W D O W N. My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down! Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.” Slow down physically, emotionally, financially. Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.
Learn to say “No”. Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you. In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed. When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up. Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play — really PLAY — with a child or a pet. And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips. Be gentle with yourself. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.
#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel. Be in the moment, whatever that moment is. I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years. During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present. We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan. It was incredibly healing. A true holiday.
So, if you’re tired, rest. If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go. If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen. If you need time alone, take it. If you’re happy, laugh. If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go. If you feel like crying, cry. You won’t “bring everyone down”. In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.
#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions. Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?
If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others. Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work. If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it. Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts. If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music. Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions. You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole. What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.
The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.” She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said. “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?” I asked. “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Well, ok, Momma. What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat. “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”
I was incredulous. The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born. We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not. This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.
The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year. Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience. Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.
#4 — Include the Elephant. Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge. This is especially true during the holidays.
One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death. I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either. I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be. And sometimes I did. Actually, that’s not quite true. It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations. A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life. It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.
So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief. Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food. Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it. Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity. Volunteer time to help others in their name. The important thing is to acknowledge their absence. In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.