I have come to the conclusion that I’ve been preparing my entire life for all of my tomorrows. Some of it has been purposeful, like going to college. But most of it has been a natural consequence of living. It’s an interesting thing to think about.
Maybe something doesn’t feel significant in the moment, but everything we do becomes a part of our foundation. New layers on top of old layers. Everything has something to teach us.
Disappointment. The big types and the micro-disappointments–it adds up over time to build tolerance for its more serious and life-altering cousin: pain.
Death: walking with my grandmother at the age of 12, coming across the scene of a young woman who seconds prior jumped off the edge of the parking structure. I remember her long hair soaked in blood.
Death: seeing my great-aunt die, one of her daughters telling her that she will soon see my grandfather. I silently wondered how that could be true.
Death: my paternal grandfather, bright green liquid coming out of his mouth like a scene out of the Exorcist, and then a flat line.
Death: my husband on the ground, face-down. On the phone with a 9-1-1 operator, but it was too late.
I’ve developed an ear for the final, prolonged exhale of life. It’s like going into labor. You spend months fretting about how you will know when it is time, but when it happens, you know.
I remember Christmases as a child, when there was family drama and this aunt or that uncle didn’t come to the holiday. I remember feeling sad, noticing the emptiness at the table. The times that my stepson didn’t come for the holidays. Having to celebrate Christmas without my grandfather offering everyone eggnog, or not having my grandmother stirring a pot full of Arabic rice over the stove.
I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the pain of an empty seat when Kenneth passed away. It’s just that his passing impacted me on a deeper level than any other loss, because his passing came with so many dashed dreams for the future. Losing my husband meant losing the life I thought I was going to live. But unbeknownst to me I had been preparing for it my entire life.
Holidays without a loved one hurts no matter how strong you try to be.
I suppose how to celebrate the holidays after death is really the last of my concerns in the grand scheme of life. But holidays are so emotional. They are anchored to memories and people and experiences. Consequently, holidays can be some of the worst triggers for a grieving person.
My first Christmas without Kenneth: I felt a looming storm inside of me over a month before it was time. The pain was gnarled and deep, intertwined with every fiber of my being. The memories of our past darted in and out of my mind, and I continued to try to reconcile what I knew to be true in my brain with what my heart still clung to from the past.
Us: our first Christmas together in the teeny tiny studio apartment in Belmont Shore. He held the camera and we took a selfie in front of the first Christmas tree that we got together. Our future was still big question marks, but the unknown had felt exciting back then. Not like our current unknowns.
Us: that time we filled his car with Christmas cheer and drove 8 hours north to see his son, before we had a family of our own. Watching my stepson open presents at a table in Starbucks. Both of us agreeing during the solemn drive home that we needed a proper Christmas next year.
Newlyweds: our first couple of Christmases, sitting on his parents’ couch while his dad took a picture for us to use on our Christmas cards. Colorful and loud wallpaper behind us on walls that would eventually become ours. Ten years ago, but it feels like more than a lifetime has passed.
Family: the Christmas when my stepson and Ethan wore matching Christmas pants that I sewed (the one and only time!) and opened identical amphibious tanks on Christmas Day. We walked to the lagoon and the boys laughed and laughed as they tried out the tanks in the sand and in the water, shooting tiny pellets at each other. I wasn’t sure who was more excited: Kenneth, or the boys?
Kenneth: wearing his blue teacher’s union shirt on Christmas Eve. “Dress up,” I admonished him, horrified that he chose to wear the same t-shirt he always wore. “Why?” he said. “I don’t want that stupid shirt in our pictures,” I said. He rolled his eyes, and didn’t change. There is a picture of us, me pregnant with Peter, our 2 other kids sitting on our laps, and him wearing that damn blue shirt.
Kenneth: shirtless, sitting on the ground, pieces of the dollhouse Santa was supposed to bring Eloise the next morning spread out all over the place. He was complaining about how much he hated that stuff. I took out my camera to snap a photo of him and he scowled, unamused. I laughed. That was the last Christmas he would ever assemble presents for our children.
Oh, Christmas. Now that I think about it, you are a source of immeasurable pain.
And yet so much joy.
I know I can’t give up on you.
I expected our first Christmas without Kenneth to be difficult. First, it was terrible that the children didn’t have their father. What a cruel world where small children wake up on Christmas morning and their father is still dead. They were so young that first Christmas without him: 6, 3, and 1. This is the age when parents are supposed to watch in amusement as their babies squeal in delight, ripping open wrapped boxes full of toys. When your babies sink their teeth into one more cookie and you let them. Instead of sitting on their Daddy’s lap, our children had to bring him flowers to the cemetery. This is a difficult reality to embrace.
Another major source of pain for me was having family events shoved in my face. Not on purpose. Everyone was just living their lives as usual. But I’d have to watch couples exchange gifts. I’d have to watch husbands help load Christmas presents into the car. I’d have to see intact families right in front of me while mine was broken and hurting and I had to digest the unfairness of it all, alone. Always alone.
The best advice I can give to others suffering from the anguish of grief during the holidays is that you just have to persevere. It’s okay to feel angry and sad and lonely. Give yourself permission to feel everything.
My strategy for our first Christmas without Kenneth was to overcompensate. I thought it was a brilliant plan. I bought the kids too many presents, lavished them with a party and outings and a trip to Japan, and that was how I got through the pain. I wouldn’t say that it was a bad plan. We had fun. We were distracted. We were creating new traditions and memories.
It just wasn’t sustainable. That’s the problem with band-aid solutions. They eventually come off.
I didn’t want to raise children who were addicted to consumption and overindulgence. Year 1 was my grace period of pain. Year 2 had to be different.
This year I don’t feel the agonizing pain cresting over my head like I did last year. The other families aren’t triggering me as much. I didn’t cry before taking family photos as a single mother like I did last year. In a bittersweet way, it is becoming our normal. Not ideal, but it doesn’t sting anymore.
We’ve kept a lot of the same traditions, and there are many new traditions being added. This year we’re celebrating with his family on Christmas Eve for the first time. For Christmas Day I ordered fake snow for the kids and I’m going to make them German apple pancakes, which I like to envision will be something I do forever, even as a white-haired grandma when the family comes over. I keep searching for something I can be good at–something I can duplicate year after year. I’m still searching for the perfect annual traditions. This year for Christmas we will have the quietest, most protected time ever with just us. We will take flowers to the cemetery. And then, a day of rest.
We started celebrating Hanukkah-style after Kenneth died, where the kids open up presents starting a week before. I started this last year, and I like the ability to focus on one gift, taking time together to really enjoy the present instead of getting overwhelmed by too much stuff.
I’ve been decorating the house a little different than when Kenneth was here, but we still put up his stocking. We still collect a new Nutcracker every year, and we set them next to Kenneth’s dad’s, and the other ones that have the year we got them scribbled in Kenneth’s handwriting underneath. Old family ornaments hang on the tree: some with my stepson’s name, some with Kenneth’s, some with just those of us still living in the home. Evidence of a family that has changed. Grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk. The ebb and flow of life.
My current survival plan is to continue blending old with new. To do what feels right. To continue evolving. Like birth and death, sometimes you have to just do what feels innately right.
My big planned step of progress is to take the kids to San Francisco. I haven’t stayed in the city since we went as a family a good 4-5 years ago. Kenneth and I used to go twice a month, back in the days when we drove up north to visit his son every other weekend. We have memories all over that city. When he died, I felt an aversion to it. I didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to be reminded of the park we walked through, or the restaurant where we ate, or the place where we went to the club on 80s night. There were too many painful reminders.
But now I think it’s time to reclaim my favorite city. I’m ready. The secret to dealing with grief is taking the next right step when you are ready, and then creating new memories. I will take my small people and show them some of my favorite places and try new ones. We will ring in the new year symbolically, with a little bit of old and a lot of new, ready to embrace all challenges and adventure, together.
(Our 1st family X-Mas Card Pic. That wallpaper, haha.)