Giving Myself Grace to Trust the Grief Process

Author: Mary Leaphart

Growing up, my family treasured spending time together during the holiday season. Even as my siblings and I headed off to college one-by-one, we were all expected home for the holidays and our traditions were preserved. But, when my brother joined the Army and received an assignment in Germany, our tradition became harder to keep.

Christmas Cookies

One Christmas Eve, Mom, Dad, my two sisters and I prepared to celebrate Christmas without my brother. He had been stationed in Germany for a while, so we had grown accustomed to having an empty seat at the table during other holidays, but his absence at Christmas was a new experience and sure to leave a big hole in our celebration.

My sisters and I decided to make stained glass cookies, using Life Saver candies as the “glass” in the middle of each one, but soon discovered we didn’t have enough Life Savers. Undeterred, we continued our holiday baking with a different cookie, but our dad insisted on going to the store to purchase more Life Savers. This was Christmas Eve; most shops were closed and we had other cookies we could bake, but he was adamant about getting more Life Savers – as if the fate of Christmas depended on those stained glass cookies.

Much to our confusion, he grabbed his winter coat and rushed out the door. Our confusion only grew as the hours passed with no sign of Dad and when he did finally arrive, he returned without any Life Savers. Instead, he returned with my brother following behind him as a Christmas surprise. Little did we know the fate of Christmas did depend on those Life Savers. Over the years, our special Christmas surprise has turned into a lasting family joke about “that time Dad went searching for Life Savers.”

When Plans Don’t Work Out

Last December, we prepared to face another Christmas with an empty seat at the table – this time without Dad. He passed away six months earlier and we were preparing to celebrate our first Christmas without him. I struggled to think of a way to honor him. Doing something sappy wasn’t representative of our dad – while he was so kind and loving, he often wasn’t one for big public displays of emotion. And, honestly, I wasn’t sure our family could take another blow of reopening those wounds – sending us each spiraling into our raw emotions.

Then I remembered that Christmas long ago and Dad’s hunt for Life Savers. I decided we could all make those stained glass cookies together on Christmas Eve and remember our dad and the great lengths he went to demonstrate his love for us.

I bought plenty of Life Savers. I made sure we had the proper cooking supplies. I even discussed the plan with my family. And then Christmas Eve arrived.

We had dinner together; the adults opened their one Christmas Eve present, while the kids opened all the gifts from their aunts and uncles. We got dressed in our best and piled into cars to attend Christmas Eve service at my sister’s church. As I sat down in the pew next to my niece and brother-in-law, I prepared to enjoy my favorite of our family traditions.

But, as the choir began singing the first song, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop when the carols finished. I didn’t stop when the service began. I cried even harder when the pastor read the Christmas story from the same passage my dad would read every year on Christmas Eve. I kept crying as the service ended and on the 30-minute drive home. I continued crying when we got home and I took my dog KC for a walk.

The ache of dad’s absence was simply more than I could bear and it felt as if all the anger, sadness, anguish, grief, confusion and sheer pain I had bottled up for the last six months came rushing out of me like a tidal wave I couldn’t control.

Slowly. I walked with KC through the silent chill of the dark night to a small dog park. I sat down to let her sniff around the park, but she quickly returned to lay down at my feet – staying until I was done “letting it out.” She knew I needed her comforting presence beside me. We sat there together and for the first time, I allowed myself to cry until my tear ducts could no longer translate my pain into tears.

I walked back and silently joined the rest of my family back inside. We never talked about it, and we never baked the cookies. I think each of us, processed our grief in our own way that day – it seemed all too individual. It was as if talking with the group about missing Dad might shatter our family like the thin layer of candy glass that once decorated the tops of our sugar cookies. And yet, I don’t regret leaving the cookie project behind.

I believe we can trust grief – it may not always do what we expect; it may make us feel as if we’re losing our minds, and it may take us down paths we don’t want to go, but it always knows what it’s doing. Even when I have a plan in mind for how I am going to navigate a “first,” an anniversary or any other special day, and it doesn’t go the way I planned – I simply trust that grief is taking me where I really need to go. It gives me what I need for that moment, and I give myself grace to trust the process.

Trusting the Grief

Seven months later, my family – Mom, brother, sisters and their families – gathered in the mountains of Tennessee for a week-long vacation together and the first anniversary of Dad’s death. I had another plan to honor Dad, but after the failed attempt at cookie making, I think my family was skeptical. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow through when the time came.

But this time, I was ready. My family spent a lovely day exploring a historical site that our dad would have loved. And when we returned to our cabin, I had prepared index cards and three helium balloons with American flags decorated for Independence Day. I invited those who wanted to join me in writing notes to Dad. Some did and some didn’t, but everyone joined me as we attached the notes to the balloons and released them. We shared our memories of the man who impacted each of us so much.

We stood in the silence and the weight of the moment for quite some time, as we watched the balloons float away, each of us taking from the experience just what we needed. This time, honoring Dad was what I needed. It was a sweet tribute and a special time that I’ll always carry with me.

Through this journey, I’m learning that we can make plans, but sometimes those plans will change. If we trust the process – if we truly trust our grief – to take us where we need to go, our hearts and our minds will start to heal along the way.

From the pen of...
Mary Leaphart is an independent consultant who specializes in experiential education and curriculum development. She enjoys spending time with her friends and family — to include her 12-year-old rescue dog, making music and exploring new adventures. She is the surviving daughter of Retired Army Col. Daniel Leaphart.