Surviving the Holidays After Loss
Author: Linda Ambard
The Christmas holidays were always magical to me. I loved the hustle and bustle, the music, the festive home decorations, the planning and the secrets, what it means to me, and I loved the laughter in my chaotic family. We never had a lot, but somehow our tree was the tree that people stood and gaped at. It looked like we had a mountain of gifts piled high under the tree. Having five children will do that. From Halloween until January 1st, the house was the essence of family, love, faith, and hope. My house drew people in, but in one horrible act, the spirit of Christmas was crushed. How does one get through the holidays when life is hard or when the grip of loss is the most real?
Phil was due home on Christmas Eve. Christmas should have been a time of a happy reunion, family fun, and celebration. As I face my fourth Christmas without him, I am struggling to look at how I can recreate some magic. I donated every ornament and the tree because it was too painful to put up. I no longer have any remnants of the upcoming day, and yet there is a silent recognition that I need to figure this out so I do not lose my children or my grandchildren during one of the happiest times of the year. How then do I do this?
First, I have learned to be gentle with myself. I know there are going to be moments that tug my heart. Airports are the absolute worst place for me. It is hard to get off of a plane and not have someone waiting for you when everyone else is rushing to someone. I don’t know if I will every like the airport, but I acknowledge it and I remind myself it is only a small sliver of my life. Church is another place I simply cannot do this time of the year. Everyone sits with his or her families. I recognize I am not ready to sit through the music and the crush of families. I give myself permission to be absent. It does not mean I lack faith or I do not like church, it is the recognition of the need to be kind to myself.
A large part of being gentle to myself is planning ahead. I have learned if I schedule a marathon slightly before Christmas and I plan to meet my girlfriends in Disney World for a week of magical running races, it gives me something to look forward to through the holidays. The running quiets the raging soul. Those races keep me connected to what keeps me from darkness and it keeps me connected to the world. Disney races are not cheap, but I run in costume, ride roller coasters, and I am taking back the holiday one step at a time.
I also intentionally start counting my blessings. I look at what I do have versus what I do not have. Initially, it was difficult to find things to be thankful for, but I am seeing more and more good in my life, in people, and in the holiday. I have written down my blessings, but mostly I do it in the miles run. In this looking at what I do have versus what I do not have, I also choose to forgive those who have taken so much from me. People ask how I could forgive Phil’s assassin. Simply it is this—I cannot let him have real estate in my heart. If I harbor anger and resentment, then my life is limited. I rarely think about him anymore and in the spirit of Christmas I reach out to others who have hurt me because in doing so I am freed.
On my hardest days, I donate my time and energy. I have done this from the first Thanksgiving (our anniversary) on. You see, when I am focused on other lonely people, I no longer see my own gaping need. When I am showing up and simply choosing to be a part of my bigger world, I am carried, too.
Christmas comes in the dead of winter. It is cold and the land is barren, and yet beneath the frozen tundra lies the tulip waiting to bloom. There is hope in knowing I have been able to continue walking forward. The tulip lies waiting to pop up in a blaze of glory when the time is right. I believe Christmas is the anchor of that promise. Christmas brings people together. This togetherness and the connections bring healing and hope. While this does not negate loss or trauma, it does provide new memories and a chance for the heart to be carried.
There may never be a Christmas I get excited for. I may never decorate my house again, but I am crawling back to life. I embrace the spirit of hope that comes from my faith and from the life I have been given. Each year I make gains on what I can do. Christmas this year is going to be spent with my family. I know it will look different and be different, but those new memories will mesh with the old memories. In the eyes of my children and in what we create for the grandchildren, there is a way forward.