We’ve reached the peak of Hallowthankmas in the stores.
I‘ve never liked smashing one holiday on top of another which seems, in my mind, to rob each of their respective unique characteristics.
I’m also particularly frustrated that Halloween-a “holiday” mocking death and focused on fear (for many)-occupies way more space in mass retailers’ aisles than Thanksgiving.
But I can no more hold back the onslaught of merchandising than I can the days marching resolutely toward end of year holidays even if I choose not to join the commercial bandwagon.
So here we are.
There are forty-eight days until Thanksgiving and seventy-five days until Christmas.
Only a short time left to figure out how to honor the missing and love the living through some of the most difficult days of the year for bereaved hearts.
I’ve written many posts about what helps, what hurts, how and when to have hard conversations with extended family members about making space for brokenness at the table and in our celebrations.
I’ll be reposting those over the next couple of weeks since I firmly believe it takes forethought and planning if we want Thanksgiving and Christmas to look more like a Hallmark movie and less like a disaster film.
In the meantime I want to share some questions that are helping me sift through my own expectations, hopes and preferences for what our holidays might look like this year:
What is TRULY important to you, your family and/or close friends with whom you celebrate?
Do you love to make an elaborate meal, bake tons of cookies, pull out all the old family recipes that call for less-than-healthy ingredients? Is decorating your thing? Does it just not feel like Christmas if you miss driving around looking at lights?
Are you fresh on this journey and need a way to skip traditions all together? Maybe you want to spend the holidays away from home or at home with a single candle lit in honor of your child.
Do you have to consider younger children (either surviving siblings or grandchildren) that might pressure you to keep things “normal” for their sake?
Have you asked your surviving children what’s important to THEM? Don’t assume their silence equals assent.
The first year after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, lots of things had changed in addition to his absence. One son got married and moved out of state, my mother’s health was in decline, my husband was working out of town and my house felt so, so empty.
We chose to put up a very small tree with limited ornaments consisting of family photos and hearts. We gave gifts but asked that others not give us any. We joined extended family for a meal but not for opening presents.
That’s what was right for US for that year.
Each year since has been slightly different.
I have to ask those questions of myself and of my family over and over, recalibrate, shift our focus or change our choices depending on how life has reshaped our circumstances in the past twelve months.
If this is the first holiday season since your child left you might want to ignore it altogether. That’s OK. But at the least you may have to tell friends and family that’s your plan.
So grab some paper and find a quiet spot to think.
Then write without editing your thoughts, feelings or ideas.
Save the page so you can reflect on it and make the decisions right for YOUR family THIS year.
In the meantime, I’ll be posting ideas from other bereaved parents that might help you navigate this particularly challenging part of the journey.
One year ago today Hurricane Michael came ashore at Mexico Beach, Florida packing more wind and damaging power than any hurricane ever recorded hitting there.
What’s more, it held every bit of that strength and smashed trees, houses and power lines for miles and miles inland including the rural county where my folks live 60 miles away from landfall.
My parents and aunt were trapped and unable to leave due to downed trees across the driveway, “yard” and the road leading out to safety. No electricity, not enough fuel to run the generator to power my mom’s oxygen and no running water (well water provided by an electric pump).
They didn’t evacuate because in the 100 years family had been living on that plot of land NO hurricane had ever made it that far inland with more than heavy rain, some strong wind and temporary power outages.
Thankfully, a neighbor had a bobcat tractor and he plus others with chainsaws and tractors were able to clear the dirt road to the main road. Thankfully, my youngest son, Julian, was able to find a way through the downed trees and power lines between our house and theirs and reach them with more fuel, more chainsaws and another set of strong arms to help them evacuate.
Thankfully, the trees that fell around the house didn’t smash it or hurt anyone.
My family had survived the frightening but escaped the truly awful.
It felt like pure grace that no one we loved was killed that day although our hearts broke for those for whom that wasn’t true.
Once power was restored and my parents were able to return home, there was so much to clean up, so much to do and so many repairs to make.
Who could have guessed that less than a year later another kind of storm would sweep across our lives, taking Mama with it?
This time there was nothing left to do.
There never is when death comes knocking and steals a person you love.
I am so grateful for the extra almost-year with Mama. I am so sad there won’t be more.
And today, when I’ve finally stopped long enough to let my heart begin to feel what that feels like, I find my longing for her is folded into my longing for Dominic.
Two deaths, one broken heart.
I’m thankful and confident that death is not the end of their story.
Mama and Dominic and all the people I’ve loved that love Jesus are together in Heaven and waiting for the rest of us to join them.
Unlike the broken trees and broken homes left behind by Hurricane Michael, there will be no tell-tale signs of repair when on that glorious Day our hearts are made whole again.
Every sad thing will come untrue-as if it never happened.
Every tear will be wiped away.
Every promise kept, every stolen thing redeemed and restored.
And Mama will be dancing while Dominic plays his drums.
Looking back I’m shocked at how much I allowed societal norms and expectations to determine how I grieved Dominic’s death.
I withheld grace from myself that I would have gladly and freely given to another heart who just buried a child. Somehow I thought I had to soldier on in spite of the unbearable sorrow, pain, horror and worldview shattering loss I was enduring.
And the further I got from the date of his accident, the more I expected from myself.
I wrote lists of things I needed to do and surprisingly often I actually got them done.
But I crawled into bed each night exhausted, physically and emotionally drained and often unable to sleep for all the pent up feelings I still needed to process.
It was a dangerous cycle.
Eventually, through contact with other bereaved parents I learned that I absolutely, positively HAD to take care of myself. If I didn’t, there wouldn’t be a me to take care of.
And my family would be plunged beneath a new tsunami of loss.
I wasn’t going to do that to them if I could help it. So I committed to practicing better self-care on this grief journey.
I’m still not always good at it, but I’m better at it than I was.
If you are sucking it up, pushing it down, soldiering on, refusing to admit that grief takes a toll no one can ignore or deny, may I suggest you consider taking a step back and thinking about the ultimate outcome of ignoring your own needs?
Here’s a graphic to get you started.
It’s not an exhaustive list and the examples given may not suit your personality or circumstances but they should give you some ideas to find the activities and habits that will help strengthen you to do the work grief requires.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019 we said our formal good-byes to my mama. Saw her face for the last time on earth surrounded by friends and family. Sang a few songs and walked away from the cemetery back to a fellowship hall full of people.
A crowded place never felt so empty.
A noisy room never sounded so quiet to ears straining for the one voice we longed to hear.
It was like that when Dominic ran ahead to Heaven five and a half years ago-I stumbled back across the grass to the waiting food and folks both relieved the public spectacle was concluded and horrified that the final act of committing his body to the ground and commending his soul to Heaven was complete.
Left with only photographs and memories.
They were not enough then and they are not enough now.
Flat, lifeless representations of the vibrant, funny, sassy mama that only recently rediscovered her appetite and snuck past the kitchen to the bowl of candy on the dining room table at every opportunity are NOT. ENOUGH.
Even though it was delightful to dig out old photo albums, scour the house for boxes tucked away in corners and open drawers searching for mementos and precious tokens of a long life, it was also a heartbreaking reminder that if she were still breathing we’d never be invading her privacy.
I remember boxing up Dominic’s things in his apartment only a few days after we buried him.
We were trespassing, pure and simple. He deserved to have whatever secrets he’d been keeping (though they were small and not at all dark or dishonorable) and here we were dragging them into the light.
I hated every minute of it. I sucked in my breath and held back the tears as I piled a life into containers of “save”, “toss” and “give away”. A lifetime reduced to lifeless objects.
We buried Mama with a white rose and a small photo of Dominic placed in between her hands. It was a tiny token representing both our heartache and our eternal hope.
I am thankful for every memory and photograph I have of Mama and Dominic.
I tuck the memories away safely in my heart and place the photos carefully in labeled albums.
But they are a paltry substitute for their earthly companionship.