Finding Joy in the Holidays

Author: Bunnie Jacquay

Have you found joy? It is especially hard as the holiday season approaches, but occasionally I catch a glimpse. The stores are filled with decorations, the mall is filled with children waiting for a chance to speak with Santa, and my heart is filled with an overwhelming sense of dread as it battles my brain for control.

Christmas Tree

As a divorcee who has buried her only child, it is easier to think of these days as just another date on the calendar. There will never be grandchildren filling the house with laughter or rushing to wake the household; there is no one to tease about the tangled tinsel or bare spot on the tree. There is just me-and I am left trying to find joy.

I know what everyone expects of me, yet I struggle to find where I fit in this holiday scenario. "You should decorate," they say. "It will make you feel better." "Come spend the day with us," they say. "You shouldn't be alone." And while I appreciate the kindness and love they offer, I long for "my" family.

A couple of years ago, I gained survivor sisters and a survivor brother who live nearby. We became our own neighborhood support group, often meeting for dinner or attending events together. Essentially we formed our own little TAPS Parent Retreat environment. This was especially helpful as we traversed the holidays without our children.

Understanding the difficulty of the approaching holidays, we decided to spend Christmas Eve together. We cooked dinner and honored our sons with empty place settings at the dinner table (complete with a beer for each of them), played games, shared stories, and had a grownup sleepover. When we awoke the next morning and emerged from our rooms, we found it easier to face Christmas morning with the shared understanding of the journey and the ease of not having to wear a mask to face the day. We surprised each other with small gifts, and now we have matching pajamas for our own Christmas Eve Retreat.

Every year, I gather my courage and face the holiday boxes. Each year the boxes seem less intimidating. Two years ago, I actually managed to bring a box into the house, where it sat-unopened-and then was carefully tucked away for another year. Last year, the sixth year of my grief journey, I bought an artificial desktop tree and lovingly hung the special ornaments I have received so far during my journey - ornaments honoring my son, honoring his military service, and reminding me once again of how the pride in his service and sacrifice overshadows the grief.

I have ventured out of my cocoon and am visually reminded that no matter how much mesh, spackle and paint I apply to the hole in my heart, the ache still exists. This isn't what I envisioned, but it is now my reality, my new normal.

My TAPS family also continues to grow as I attend different functions. My fellow survivors have provided the sanity check that allows me to move forward and face each day. Together we can laugh, cry, comfort and understand, sometimes with no more than a look. Together, we realize we are not alone. Things will never be normal again.

What is it about grief that leaves us so empty and hollow? We all know it is part of the circle of life, but even if one is prepared it doesn't make it any easier. I once thought that the only way to truly realize how much you miss someone is for them to be gone. Isn't that the meaning behind "absence makes the heart grow fonder?" I'm not sure that is truly what is meant, but there is a ring of truth to it. Don't we miss them even more when we no longer have them near? Somehow the hole in our heart patches and we carry on, but we are no longer as sturdy or invincible as we once were.

In brief moments, you come to a realization, even if it causes you pain, that in some way helps you to turn a corner and pick up again without looking back all the time. You do what you can, the best that you can; that's all one can ask of a person. You realize that when you laugh a little, enjoy a book, or hum a tune you have not forgotten your loved one, but instead you have found the strength to carry on - the will to be their historian. And who better to serve as their historian!

I tell anyone who will listen that he is my favorite subject. Hearing my son's name may bring tears to my eyes, but it also brings music to my ears. Please don't stop me from hearing the beautiful music, for it soothes my soul and warms my heart. How lucky we are to have had a love so great that it enriched our lives forever.

The business of life is the acquisition of memories. There is a box of Christmas decorations filled with memories that are all associated with my son, Cody, and I have promised myself that this year I will make friends with those memories and be comfortable with joy. After all, they are meaningful and most precious to me, so why not give myself a gift? Personalized ornaments, ornaments celebrating milestones and occasions, Christmas stockings, those special decorations and ornaments that he delighted in arranging, all bring the flood of emotion and grief but are well worth the prize. I will make the choice to allow joy to seep back into my life by celebrating Cody's life rather than focusing on his death.

My fellow survivors in our Care Group are fond of saying, "There's another Bunnieism" when I throw out a thought for them to ponder. All I know is that I make a choice every day to always conduct myself in a manner that will neither disgrace or dishonor my son's memory. For as long as I celebrate his life and share memories with others, he will never be forgotten.

Last month, I held a glass of water in the palm of my hand and asked a simple question, "How heavy is this?" After several guesses, my answer was this: "The weight of the water is irrelevant for it represents grief, and the longer you hold onto it the heavier it becomes." Our task is to allow those grief bursts to bubble over the rim, to gradually and gently lighten the burden as we traverse this journey. None of us will be the person we were before, and we cannot change the past. The beauty of TAPS is that you are not alone; we are all here for you. You can't run away from your life; it's yours and it's precious. You just have to claim it. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep at it, eventually the fear wears away. You must be willing to continue to live your life so that their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Do not insult them, but rather honor them - gather your strength and live to fight another day.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. So this year, I will not only bring the boxes of decorations into the house, but I will open them and find joy. 

By Bunnie Jacquay, surviving mother of SGT Cody Legg: Bunnie is a TAPS Peer Mentor and facilitator of the San Diego Care Group, but more importantly, the surviving mother of SGT Cody Legg. Along her grief journey, she finds herself surfing through the calm and chaos of daily life. Over time, she is learning who she was and finding how to fit into her new normal. She chooses to embrace the change, knowing that Cody's legacy is perpetuated through her commitment to finding joy.