It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Only what if it isn’t?
What if the people that make up your home have died and then the rest of your family has scattered? How do the holidays become joyful again?
For most of my life, nothing came close to the anticipation of Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
Every year during their travels, they’d buy an ornament for the huge Christmas tree. A windmill from Holland. A giraffe from Kenya. A lobster fisherman from Alaska. A tiny doll from Mongolia. I guarantee you’ve never seen a tree so internationally decorated—the UN of Christmas trees—or one that was as much of a teaching tool as it was an elaborately gorgeous work of holiday art.
Come Christmas Eve, after greeting everyone, I’d go straight to the tree to find that year’s new, hidden ornament amongst all the others. Even in my adult years this was a game I couldn’t resist.
“Remind me where you went this year?” I’d ask Grandpa. (Grandma had her hands full in the kitchen).
Peru? OK, I’m probably looking for something brightly colored. China? Maybe something with red, black, or gold?
I could always ask for hints. “What does the traditional dress of Caucasus look like?” Usually Grandpa would just give a knowing shrug, but based on the look in his eye I could tell whether I was on the right track.
There was just something so special about learning from these people. Feeling the textures of the world beyond St. Louis, Missouri. Beyond the US of A.
Amidst all that holiday cheer, the smell of pie, and all those feelings of belonging, I never once wondered what would happen to my family after the Matriarch and Patriarch were gone. What the holidays would look like without Jack and Jackie and their house.
I do, however, remember that as Grandma and Grandpa got older, my mom would warn me that one day they would die. She must have been able to see how it would destroy me. And how I avoided that truth.
I would not have it. Could not have it. It felt to me like they made up for every disappointment I experienced in my childhood. They filled every hole and were either a balm for or a distraction from everything that wasn’t just right as a kid.
Their smarts, worldliness, and charm, and their willingness to engage with me at that level, gave me a place to land in a family that could sometimes feel foreign. We were cut from the same cloth. With them I belonged.
Grandpa died in a car accident in Poland in 2002. Grandma died of a stroke at home eight years later, in 2010. With the Matriarch and Patriarch gone, and without a family of my own to pass these traditions down to, Christmas has never been the same since.
I live across the country and tried to go home for the holidays the first few years to help build new traditions, but it wasn’t quite right. Everything is different now. I’d had no idea how much glue Grandma and Grandpa had provided and how much scattering would happen after they were gone.
But it did. Without their light, it seemed that all the other darknesses of the family became achingly evident.
And every year since, the holidays have been difficult for me. More so than I’ve wanted to admit. It’s a special kind of lonely when the people that give you a place to belong die and then the whole family system you knew and grew up with dissolves.
That’s big grief.
So I stopped going home for the winter holidays. I think I imagined that’d solve it somehow. Plus I couldn’t face the accumulated family stress of unacknowledged grief.
This year I’m finally realizing that the only thing that will feel right is fully grieving it. All of it. My family. Those lessons. That tree. Those feelings of belonging.
Giving myself to the process by remembering the memories, telling the stories, crying the tears, and generally turning toward the loss. Not wallowing, but being willing to let the grief be true.
From that place, I’m able to make plans for Christmas that’re actually inspiring to me. Plans that include the intimacy and connection I need during this time, but that also make space for what’s true—that the holidays can bring up a lot of grief.
With that in mind, I have an invitation for anyone with painful feelings this Holiday Season.
Feel it with your whole body. And this part’s important—feel it until you can feel down to the core of it…the love, the celebration, the belonging. At the heart of grief is always praise. Praise for what was lost. Praise for the nourishment of good feelings.
Praise tells us what we want, crave, and long for. What we need. If you have the courage to immerse yourself in this, then summon up the courage to allow it transform you by letting it inform your desires, your plans, your intentions.
That way, the grief and loss becomes useful, a catalyst on the road toward acknowledging and stepping toward what you want in your life. Let whatever it is you’re grieving and praising, like my Grandparents, give you yet another gift—the insight and courage toward a new reality.
Not a fantasy—like bringing people back who’ve died—but a new reality.
Because, apparently, nothing stays the same. And although difficult, that’s a good and beautiful fact if it ushers us into the next true thing.
Go there with love in your heart.
Author: Sundara Blair
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Images: Luz/Flickr & Author’s own