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What It’s Like To Be Grieving During The Holidays

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie! Can’t wait to see you.”

The last hand-written note I received from my father was a greeting card that arrived in the mail about a week before he unexpectedly died last year.

I was due to fly home for the holidays days later. How could this be happening now? Losing the person I was closest with in the world at the most special time of year felt like a nightmare. 

Winter has always been my favorite season, and December my favorite month. Maybe it is because I grew up in a particularly frosty hometown, but there is something I love about putting up lights, sipping warm drinks and coming together to keep out of the cold. It’s about having something to look forward to at the darkest time of year — whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas,  or the new year — and spending time with the people who matter most.

Dad and I tended to fill the holidays sampling port and cheese by the fireplace, spending hours working on 1,000-piece puzzles and humming along together while he played tunes from ”A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the piano. When he died, I worried I would never enjoy those things again.

People often describe the early days of grief as feeling surreal. I remember it in snippets. It was a Friday night when I got the call; I was on the bus home from my last day of work before the holidays. I was supposed to go to a party that night and remember not knowing how to tell the host I suddenly couldn’t make it. A friend came over to feed me and sort out my flights, and I faintly recall her taking down my Christmas decorations and throwing away my tree.

Losing the person I was closest with in the world at the most special time of year felt like a nightmare.

As I made my way through the airport the next morning to catch the first flight out, I was definitely still in shock. Trance-like, I floated past festive jumpers, families rushing to greet each other and college students happily heading home for winter break.

I managed to hold it together for most of my nine-hour flight to Vancouver (where my dad, mom, brother and grandmother happened to be visiting when Dad died). But as the plane began its descent, the airline attendants started to sing a love song for a newly married couple on board — something about being together forever.

I broke down crying, and the stranger next to me quietly leaned over and held me, never once asking for an explanation. That moment, in particular, stays with me.

Everyone copes with grief differently. I went into a hyper-efficient state from the moment I got off the plane. I started making lists and tackling all the unpleasant tasks ahead. There is so much work to do when somebody dies — coordinating with the funeral home, planning the service, sorting through paperwork, calling lawyers, notifying banks, canceling bills. It’s relentless, but for me, it felt good to be busy.

We spent Christmas with my parents’ best friends in another city. They were grieving as much as my family was but managed to take care of us while we sat around stunned and tried to remember what you’re supposed to do during the holidays. Nobody shied away from talking about what had happened — many drinks were had in Dad’s honor and we took turns crying big blubbery tears in between helpings of turkey and stuffing. Grief comes in waves, and we rode them out together.

Though it was hard to make sense of anything at the time, I now recognize how special those few days were. People often tiptoe around the topic of death or change the subject altogether in conversation, so I think we were lucky to be shielded from the outside world for a brief moment. I am glad we had that time together to speak openly about our pain — and celebrate my dad in a way that felt right to us.

People often tiptoe around the topic of death, or change the subject altogether in conversation, so I think we were lucky to be shielded from the outside world for a brief moment.

We dreaded returning to our empty house after Christmas but finally headed home in time for New Year’s Eve, which was also my parents’ wedding anniversary. One of Dad’s sisters had warned me that walking into the house could be difficult; their own father had passed away unexpectedly when she was my age, and the toughest moment for her was coming home to find his reading glasses lying out on the kitchen table where he had last left them.

When I got home, I steeled myself for any potential triggers, did a quick tour of the house and was relieved not to find anything. It was only when I went up to bed later that night that I noticed Dad’s BlackBerry charger, the last book he’d been reading, and — yes — his reading glasses on the nightstand in my bedroom.

Mom forgot she’d had a cold before they went out of town and he had been sleeping in my childhood bed. I’ve kept the book, with a scrap piece of paper still marking his page, but haven’t brought myself to read it yet.

In the weeks that followed, I took a hands-on approach to my grieving process. I wanted to understand what I was going through, so I saw a bereavement counselor and bought books on grief psychology. I learned I was a “resilient” griever — and that, in fact, most people are. It means that rather than becoming debilitated by loss, you are able to carry on with your life — or forge some sort of new life — while continuing to grieve.

I also became increasingly drawn to poetry, art, and nature — things I had never had a particularly strong interest in before but that suddenly made me feel grounded and helped me understand my place in the universe. I read a collection of mindful poems about accepting impermanence and finding happiness in the present. Those concepts stayed with me as one month rolled into the next, until suddenly almost a full year had passed.

As December began to approach this year, my mom and I talked about potentially “skipping” the holiday season altogether. We wanted to go somewhere hot to lie on a beach instead. In the end, we weren’t able to make that happen, so I now find myself preparing to head home once again, this time knowing Dad won’t be there when I arrive. 

I know the house will feel even emptier than last year since Mom has started to downsize and is constantly selling or giving away our stuff. Dad and I won’t be attending midnight mass. There will be no carols emanating from the family room when I get home — we still have the piano, but Dad was the only one who played.

I am, however, glad I am not running away from the holidays, either. We are planning to do things a bit differently this year — for one thing, we will dine out on Christmas rather than cook. But I think it is possible to alter traditions, or start new ones, without feeling disloyal to Dad’s memory.

I think it is possible to alter traditions, or start new ones, without feeling disloyal to Dad’s memory.

Of course it will be tough. But then, so is every other time of year. As I have learned to cope, I’ve realized that being able to show resilience in the face of grief doesn’t mean you love the person you’ve lost any less — nor does it mean you don’t still miss them profoundly. I think and talk about my dad every day. For me, resilience means finding ways to honor him while continuing on with life.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine lost her own father. I reached out to commiserate about what a difficult time it was to mourn someone — and to offer some advice for getting through the first weeks (back up all your messages from him; flip on your phone recorder anytime someone starts telling stories; be prepared for a heartbreaking mixture of sympathy cards and cheery Christmas letters in the mail).

“It’s a hard time to lose someone,” she responded. “But maybe we are lucky to have the season to celebrate them and be around loved ones.”

She’s right. Even if Dad had died in April or July, I would still always miss him at this time of year. Having my grief forever tied to the season certainly complicates things and leaves me with a sometimes-confusing raft of emotions. But this past year has taught me how little control we really have, and that all we can do is find and cherish moments of joy when possible. I’ve resolved never to miss an opportunity to do that, so I will embrace this season’s festivities and search for warmth and comfort in them.

As I sit down to write my annual holiday cards this year, I admit it is tough to strike the right tone. So much has changed in 12 months, and for a moment, I wonder if there is any point in writing the cards at all. But then I see my dad’s final note to me, prominently displayed on my kitchen table, and remember how much happiness it brought me last year. I know this is one holiday tradition that I will carry on.

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