Sunday, December 24, 2017

Embracing Grief at the Holidays

I think most of us can remember a time we loved the holidays.  Santa Claus. Our grandparents giving us huge hugs -- and even bigger gifts.  The smells of the once a year treats from the oven, and laughter of cousins.  I think for many of us somewhere along the way the magic of Christmas has turned into dread or endurance.

My husband and I didn't put up a Christmas tree this year.  It has always been my favorite part of Christmas.  I love looking through the ornaments and remembered so many good times.  The doll my 2nd grade teacher made out of a pack of lifesavers and a styrofoam ball head.  Yes, I have a roll of 34 year old candy in my Christmas decorations.  I loved my teacher, and the fact she made something for me was so special.  (She made one for each of us in our class.)But then there are the other ornaments.  Childhood creations from people who won't speak to me any longer.  Ornaments bought on years the holidays wouldn't be considered "good".  The year a family member threw out all the gifts I gave him.  

Then there are the ornaments that bring back fun memories that just make me sad as I tell the story.  My dad always had a habit of asking delivery truck drivers if they had any free samples.  Before the advent of computers, many actually did.  Often he would walk away with a handful of out of date pastries and chips.  One of my Christmas ornaments was on a box of donuts that was given him when he asked for free samples.  I love the story, but it also makes me sad. I miss my dad and his antics.

This is the twelfth  Christmas without my dad.  The 4th without my mother, the 23rd without my beloved grandmother (Christmas never seemed the same after she passed away).   I'm more aware than ever who is missing at the holidays than I ever have been.  Two years ago I spent Christmas bracing for my last funeral of the year.  In February 2014, I buried my mother.  In September of that year, Grandpa Wilson, and in December of that year, a friend from high school.  Because he died at Christmas, Joey will always be thought of and missed this time of year.  (There were a number of other friends, family, and neighbors who died that year, but I could only force myself to those three funerals as difficult a year as it was for me.)

There was a commercial when I was growing up for a store called Hills that began, "Before the lights were strung around the world, there was a silent night".  Yes, yes there was.  I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Israel in 2006, and I stood at the very spot where Jesus is thought to be born.  I had just bought some souvenirs and happened to have bought olive wood rosaries for my Catholic friends, so I made a point of touching them to that spot to make them more special.  I did the same later that day at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Jesus.  The reason we have CHRIST-MASS. 

A friend who went with me to Israel was commenting while we were there that Israel commemorates emptiness.  When visiting the Western Wall, you don't visit the Temple because it's not there.  You visit the closest you can get to the Holy of Holies.  When you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (if you are Catholic) or the Garden Tomb (if you are Protestant), you aren't visiting the remains of Jesus.  He isn't there.  You are visiting the emptiness of that burial spot.  The holiest place to me in Israel was The Mount of Olives.  I can't describe it, but the energy there was absolutely intense with goodness.  Maybe it was the first site I visited in Israel, maybe it was the site itself, maybe it was just looking over the holy city at night for the first time.  But it was a highlight of my trip.  But I can't explain why.  Again, the emptiness.  I felt the prayers of all the people through the ages who had been on that mountain.  Those prayers made that a holy place.  But it wasn't because what was seen.

This holiday is another I am spending mainly by myself.  My husband volunteered to work extra to allow a coworker to spend more time with their family.  I don't even have my favorite decoration hung on the wall this year.  When I was little, there was a cheap plastic Santa face with a blinking light inside.  As a toddler, my dad would hoist me on his shoulders and tell me Santa's nose wouldn't start blinking until I gave it a kiss.  The nose of  Old St. Nick is dented, discolored, and to me, beautiful.  It looks like nothing to most people -- and I always am telling handymen to be careful with it, and no matter what it looks like to not throw it away.  It's value isn't intrinsic, but its value is the memories.  The first Christmas without Dad, I kissed the Santa nose for the first time in almost 30 years.  It was my tribute to the first jolly fat man I knew and loved -- my dad, and I have honored my dad that way every year since when I have put up that wall hanging.

Many of us have a choice.  We can allow grief to wash over us.  We can stay there, or we can appreciate the grief for what it is -- memories.  If we didn't feel grief, it means we never had someone or something we loved taken away.  And I would rather have the memories of my grandmother who was bipolar showing up to our Christmas dinner in a dress and a WVU baseball cap, the time my mother was baking and a roll got stuck to the top of the oven, the time my friend Joey called me when I was upset with him at Christmastime and told me he was sorry.  I was reduced to tears because I knew I was the one in the wrong.  A mended friendship that, unknown to me, would end on that very day twenty some years later as death snatched him from us too soon.  These memories make me sad, but I am happy I had them, and I cherish them.

My husband and I are creating new traditions this year.  Among other things we are lighting a couple candles tonight.  Thanking God for what we do have this year.  But I'm also going to take a little while, clutch a rosary I bought in Israel, and remember what makes this time of year empty -- and be thankful for it.  It means I loved, and very few things we can hold forever, but we can treasure the memories.  I encourage you to do the same.

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