Hands down, Christmas is my most favorite time of year. Everything from the twinkling lights, the smell of pine trees in my living room, cheesy Christmas songs, sparkling silver stars and being with my family makes my heart go pitter patter. Our family traditions that started before my birth still carry on with my own children. It is such a gift to be able to share these with them, I can only pray that my kids carry them on with their kids. Hearing Shirley Temple sing “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (you can thank me later for having this song stuck in your head all day) is all it takes to catapult me back to my childhood and the excitement of Christmas feels the same. Only now, instead of being excited to see decorated homes and watch favorite Christmas movies, I’m excited to watch the expressions on my kid’s faces when the magic happens. My most favorite activity is unpacking our decorations the first of the month with my kids each year. As my kids pull each memory out of the dusty tote, they laugh and giggle and tell silly stories about the marching Santa or the missing baby Jesus from Christmas’s past. Glitter often sprinkles the carpet, gets on our hands and ultimately ends up on our faces. The kids giggle because one always ends up in my nostril and is impossible to remove. The ornaments, wrapped in old tissue paper, with last year’s scotch tape and name tags still attached, also tells a story about the gift grandma gave them or their favorite cousin. Each year our collection grows. As we unwrap each delicate ornament, I’m carefully guarding my heart. I’m guarding my heart because I know in that plastic storage container is a memory of loved ones I long to hug and I know that I can’t.
My grandma Belle died last year. We’re approaching our second Christmas without her and it’s hard. She was big on Christmas, always determined to fit 20-25 kids, grand kids and great grandkids into her tiny living room on Christmas Eve. For thirty-five years, I never missed a Christmas Eve in her home. Her delicious turkey recipe, passed down to my mom and now to me is deeply imbedded into my heart. Her standing, lit up reindeer family was always strategically placed in front of her rose bushes. Their moving heads fascinated her great grand children. It was tradition that each time a new baby was born into our family, a star would be cut out of a paper plate, labeled, wrapped in foil and hung on her tree. It was amazing to see how towards the end of her life, she had “more silver stars than tree.” She was blessed indeed.
Now, it’s different. The tradition has to change and I had to answer the questions from my kids, “Mom, how will we see Santa if we don’t get to drive home from Grandma Belle’s house on Christmas Eve?” or, “will Christmas Eve be canceled now?” I’m not going to lie. It hurts but in a good way. They loved their great grandma Belle. They miss her, talk about her all of the time and play with her old purses and wear her comfy house sweaters. After she passed away, her great grandkids got to choose special items that she left behind. My kids chose her Christmas decorations. This year, she won’t be with us but my home will be filled with her decorations, alongside their other great grandma Margaret’s. They were too young to have cherished memories of Grandma Margaret during the holidays when she passed, but each year they ask me to tell a story about her. This is what I expected.
I also expected the insensitivity people give, whether it’s unintentional, a result of the awkwardness of death that leaves people at a loss of words or a selfishness of people who expect you to bounce back in a certain amount of time and “be you again.” After I lost my daughter, I heard it all. People said things like, “when are you coming back to work? This has been an inconvenience to my treatment plan…” to, “…don’t worry, you’re young. Just have another baby.” As if the one I had lost is replaceable?
Just in case, here are some things to never say to someone wanting nothing more than to spend another minute with the one they lost…
- “You’ll get over it with time…” Not true. You’ll never be “over it”. In the beginning, thoughts of these special people consume us. I lost my daughter in 1998, sixteen years ago, SIXTEEN YEARS AGO!! I can’t believe how long that sounds, but I can tell you every time I visit her grave or hold her baby blanket, I cry like it was yesterday. True, I’m not “weeping and wailing” like I did at first, but I got through it. I believe we’ll get through it, not over it. You will forever be changed by the experience of loss and your true friends and family will learn to accept the “new you”.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
2. “Did you know it was coming?” Seriously? As if knowing they are going to die makes this any easier? As much as you can prepare yourself for the death, you can never be prepared for the loss and grief. Please don’t ask this question. I know curiosity can get the best of you but does it really matter if they knew?
3.“So, how are you doing?” Do you want me to answer honestly? Should I be forced to tell a white lie and say OK? How well do you know me? Through my times of grief, the most meaningful things said to me by my closest family and friends were, “You don’t have to talk. I’ll just sit with you…” or “I’m here to listen, when you are ready.” Most of the time I had nothing to say, I was just afraid to be alone.
On the other hand, you should:
- Mention their loved one in a quick note in your Christmas card. “Thinking of your dad this holiday season.” Grieving people long to hear the name of their loved one mentioned, however bittersweet. The simple acknowledgment of them will touch them deeply.
2. Listen when they say they don’t want your tuna casserole. As much as your heart may be in the right place, the family is exhausted and probably already has a freezer full of love filled meals. Sometimes it’s difficult to open the door and accept the meal. It can be weird and awkward. Should I put on a smile? Seem cheerful as I accept this? Give them time. It might be of more help to run to the post office for them, helping them address thank you cards for the condolences sent.
3. Call them a month or a month and half after the death. This is when people kind of ‘resume normal life’ and stop checking in. The reality of the permanency of the situation sets in and it can hurt more so than the initial death. The feeling of loniless can be overwhelming. Knowing they are not forgotten can help heal a hurting heart.
4. Don’t be afraid to share a memory or give them a copy of your favorite photo. I know that this gesture meant a lot to me. I loved to hear how much they were loved by people other than our immediate family. The photos will be cherished and stories can be retold to new generations.
5. Pray. In all things, pray. Death is natural. It’s expected and it happens to all of us, eventually. You can never fully understand what loss is until you’ve cradled the urn with your mother in it or stood at the grave of your sweet baby. Pray for strength of the family, that this brings them closer. Pray that it reminds all of us to love fully, not hold grudges and not waste time in relationships that are toxic. That this situation will cause the bereaved to fully rely on God and his grace. Pray that they will surrender all of their pain.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the Peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
As we approach this holiday season, I’ll be keeping the memories of our loved ones close to my heart, cherish each day that the Lord brings and rejoice in the fact that I’m still here and able to create new traditions. I’ll be keeping each one of you in my prayers.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18