Grief Is Funny That Way: The Holiday Edition

My Mom’s birthday is tomorrow, the fourth birthday of hers since she passed away. Each year it does get easier, but it still stings mightily. The thing that has changed is that now I am ready for it and expecting it.

Her birthday comes six days before Christmas so all this grief has been tied up in the holidays for a while now. Because of that, I don’t look forward to the holiday season like I used to. I white-knuckle it, hold it together, manage it and get through it, but I don’t necessarily love it. The only problem with that is the four kids I have who do love Christmas. If it were up to me, we’d skip the whole damn thing and go someplace warm and make entirely new traditions, involving sand and sun. But as my husband reminded me as he dragged the Christmas boxes down from the attic while I moaned and groaned in the background, “we’re doing this for them!”

Navigating grief through the holidays while parenting is like being the head stewardess on a flight that is experiencing great turbulence. Your job is to smile and pretend everything is okay for the passengers. It’s all, “please fasten your seatbelts everyone, we’re experiencing some slight turbulence,” while inside you’re screaming, “HOLY CRAP WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” But smile you must while taking care of the passengers, making sure their seats are upright and trays are in a locked position, all the while wishing you could freak out yourself. When your kids are watching you, you hold it together and you hold it in. For the most part.

The best way I can describe grief is it’s like a nosebleed: it can appear out of nowhere, often at the most inconvenient times and catches you unawares. I remember my Mom’s birthday three years ago, when I thought I was doing okay. Great, even! I had made it through her first birthday without her and thought the worst was behind me. Ha! Hahahaha. That’s not how it actually works.

A grief therapist I was seeing told me that it’s the second year without your loved one that is the hardest. She said it was because that’s when you realize the permanence of the situation. That didn’t resonate with me and I didn’t believe her: how could anything be worse than this first horrible year filled with sad milestones? Plus, during my Mom’s illness I understood what permanent situation we were hurtling towards; there was no part of me confused about that or in denial. That well-meaning therapist had just put it in the wrong terms for me. If I were to explain it to someone experiencing recent loss, I would out it more like this:

You know how when there’s been an ice storm, or freezing snow? You walk very gingerly, using tiny steps so you don’t wipe out on the black ice that you just know is hiding under the frost. During winters at my Midwestern college, our quad muscles would be so sore and aching at end of every snowy day from walking slowly and deliberately all around campus, bracing for every slick step. That’s the first year: you brace yourself, you take extra care and therefore, you don’t wipe out.

The second year is when you don’t even realize there’s black ice hiding right under the frosty surface until your foot slides on that slickness and you wipe out. I mean, you really buy the farm: your feet go out from under you, you fly up in the air and you land full force on your ass. I wish my therapist had explained it like that instead of the bullshit concept of not understanding the permanence of death, and then maybe I would’ve believed her.

I was so smart during that first year without my Mom! I obviously knew how awful it was, so I practiced Extreme Self-Care: I did my yoga, ate healthily, saw a therapist, booked sitters for alone time away from my little kids. I gave myself the gift of grieving and grace, didn’t push it. I approached the dreaded one-year anniversary with all its bad memories of the illness, the traumas, the very difficult end, the family infighting. That milestone had been looming all year and suddenly, it passed and I breathed a sigh of relief: I made it through! (See above: Ha! Hahaha.)

So you tell your grief therapist you’re good, you don’t need any more appointments. You stop juicing every day because really, what a pain in the neck that is and who needs all those vegetables anyway? You resume your normal pace of life. In fact, you begin to push it the second year–to make up for all the lost time of the past few years when you were completely consumed with illness, dying and death. You’re back, baby!

Which brings me back to my Mom’s birthday three years ago. My Mom was the music director at our church growing up and she taught me to play my violin alongside her at Mass. I knew every single church hymn, every refrain, every liturgical musical season. Every piece reminded me of her and church became too painful and so, I avoided going to Mass. I mean, who needs your faith when you’re suffering, right? Ha! Hahaha.

Problem was, our kids were attending Catholic school and I couldn’t avoid going to their special school Masses, like the one that was being held on her birthday. One of our kids had a speaking part in it and so my husband and I had to go. He needed to make a work call first so I went up ahead with our toddler to get our seats. Yes, it was my Mom’s birthday, but really, I was fine! Then the music started. And that’s when the “nosebleed” started.

I have never actually had a nosebleed, but I imagine it’s like what happens when suddenly, you start crying and you just can’t stop. You’re shocked at first, then, horrified. I dug my fingernails into my palms, desperate to try and hold back the tears that sprang up from nowhere. But this song! We always played it together! And, oh no, I had makeup on: the tears were running, my nose was running, and my mascara was running. I searched my pockets, my purse…no tissues. I didn’t want all the other parents who were packing the church to see me losing my marbles like this so I ducked my head down and let my hair hang forward while the tears, snot and mascara ran down my face and I Ugly Cried in public.

My daughter, about three at the time, loved going to these school masses because she could catch a glimpse of her older siblings and wave to them, or if she was especially spicy that day, shout, “HELLO! HI! HI! HELLO! I SEE YOU!” at the top of her lungs. Well, this fabulous day, she didn’t see any of her siblings, but apparently, she did see the biggest nose that she had every seen in her little life. And so that’s what she started to yell about instead.

“OH MY GOSH, MOMMY! LOOK AT THAT LADY’S NOSE! IT’S SO BIG! WHY IS IT SO BIG, MOMMY?”

I hushed her, hissing “stop it, shhh, be quiet!” in between my sobbing. But she would have none of it. She was fascinated and obsessed with this nose on another parent’s face and she would not be denied.

“DO YOU SEE HER, MOMMY? WHO IS SHE? WHY IS HER NOSE THAT BIG? LOOK AT IT!” She was pointing now.

Heads were turning to us. Then eyes would widen when they saw my face. Then heads would turn to try and figure out who in the hell had the big nose?

Oh God, I prayed, make this stop.

I heard rustling beside me and looked up to see my husband entering our pew, finished with his work call. He looked at my face, which I’m pretty sure was now in the “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane” territory and gasped.

Then our daughter saw him and shouted, “DADDY!! YOU’RE HERE! LOOK AT THAT LADY’S NOSE! IT’S THE BIGGEST NOSE IN THE WHOLE WORLD! DO YOU SEE IT? RIGHT OVER THERE!”

I heard him mutter, “what the heck?,” as he fished out clean tissues from his coat pocket, handed them to me and simultaneously took our daughter in his arms and then onto his lap as he sat down and shushed her, while also effectively blocking my Crazy Crying Face from the view of the entire congregation.

The best thing about my husband (other than always, always having clean tissues in his pocket while I was on this rollercoaster of grief) was that he never asked, “Why are you crying?” or “What happened?” He knew grief doesn’t work like that or even answer to those questions. It just is. Like a nosebleed. You don’t ask someone, “Why is your nose bleeding?” You just hand them a tissue and help clean them up while you pat their back.

When you are missing someone you love or grieving in other ways (divorce, family estrangement, illness, job loss), the holidays are tough. They are tough in the way cold and damp weather is tough for old war injuries. Imagine a battle-worn soldier saying, “Oof, this damn weather makes my tricky knee and back act up every damn time. I can’t get out there today, I’m gonna need to just sit here a bit and read the paper till it stops aching.”

When you’re grieving, your holidays are always cold and damp and your tricky back and knee are always acting up. The pain does get less and less– I am proof of that. Plus, you just learn to expect it and take some extra Advil and keep that heating pad nearby.

Aside from the passage of time, the only thing that ever made me feel better when the grief was awful was reaching out to help someone else who was in the same dilapidated boat as me. Nothing felt better than saying to someone else in this similar type of grief or pain, “I understand. I get it. How can I help you?” I love that I can offer them my understanding and compassion. Truly, what a great gift grief has given me. An unexpected and unasked for gift, yes, but great nonetheless.

Reaching out to someone with a simple note, helping a friend who has a sick family member, or playing my violin at the nursing home lifted the cloud of grief for me. I was doing something I knew my Mom would do, as she was the kindest and most giving person I’ve ever known, so it felt good to emulate her. I knew it would make her proud and it made me feel closer to her, too.

So if you’re reading this and hurting with grief this holiday season, I want you to know…I understand. I get it. How can I help you?

And Mom, happy birthday, I miss you like crazy.

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