Posted by: riverchilde | January 31, 2013

A Decembered Grief

Arghh. I thought I posted this the day I wrote it in late December (Dec. 22, to be exact). So it was frustrating to see it listed as a draft on my dashboard. But maybe there’s a reason for that. So I’m posting it now, over a month later. Maybe someone needs to hear it for a different holiday. I know that Easter may be even more difficult than Christmas for us, and we are already thinking about what our plan might be.


If I’ve learned anything about grief in the past seven months (today is exactly seven months to the day when my son took his own life), it is that you make it up as you go along. Day by day, minute by minute. One day has an entirely different tone than the next and than the day before; emotions change in a minute. Because I’ve preferred to find my own groping way through the tangled mess, I’ve avoided reading most grief self-help books.

Except for one. “A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others are Celebrating” by Harold Ivan Smith (a Christian grief counselor and grief educator), was exactly what I needed in the week  after Thanksgiving (which was six months to the day of my son’s death). It gave me permission to choose how to respond to all the challenges of the season, while also offering others’ experiences with their choices. To have this full menu of options and insights was a true gift. It allowed me to play with possibilities continually, gave me others’ perspectives on their decisions about decorating, traditions, others’ needs, setting boundaries, embracing aspects of the season, entertaining, shopping, gift-giving, and even travelling (someone else’s experience suggested that “running away” for Christmas might not be the best idea).

This “permission” let me do the following things:

1. Say no and say yes to certain events based on how I was feeling that day.

2. Put up outdoor Christmas lights. (I thought people might be scandalized, but I really need light at the darkest time of the year, and a dark house would only sharply remind me daily of my grief. And I can’t live in those dark depths every minute of the day.)

3. Decorate the house.  Others in my husband’s grief group were saying that they still couldn’t decorate three years after their loss, and here I was, putting up lights and garlands all over the house. I needed to hear that it was okay to decorate for Christmas. And even more, my college-aged daughter needed those Christmas decorations.

4. Go on a five-day trip to New York City with my husband and daughter the week before Christmas. We needed not to escape (although the trip did provide that), but to build good new memories. My daughter and I are Eloise fanatics, and so our trip was an Eloise at Christmastime extravaganza, again exactly what we needed.

5. Cut back on gift-giving for family, and put more of our Christmas budget into gifts for those in need. We gave away some of my son’s electronics to kids whose parents would never be able to afford them, and purchased other gifts that reflected our understanding of what people need in order to deal with the losses in their lives.

6. Completely avoid retail stores during the Christmas season. The internet makes this one easy, and I had a much more pleasant Advent.

7. Turn off the Christmas machine and say no to all the “musts” of Christmas photo cards, family letter, baking, candy making, caroling, etc., etc. And then say yes to any of those when the time feels right and I want to do them.

7. Focus on Advent and allow the experience of hopeful waiting to permeate my days. I chose hymns over carols, nixed all “holly jolly” music until a few days before Christmas), and kept the radio and TV off. As a result, this has been the most meaningful Advent season of my life.

8. Leave certain decisions open. I still don’t know how much time I will be spending with certain members of the family during family celebrations, and they know that. I also don’t know if I will be attending a Christmas Eve service.

9. Fall asleep at a “Longest Night” service geared to those for whom this isn’t “the happiest time of the year.” Others wept, prayed, lit candles, spoke with a pastor–they got what they needed. I needed peace and rest, and that’s what I got there.

10. Bite the bullet for the sake of others. I dread opening presents this year, and if it were up to me, there would be no presents at all (despite the fact that I usually have at least half my Christmas shopping done by Halloween). But I recognize that decision would just be too divisive, and so I will do what I can to participate fully in the gift exchanges.

11. Change my mind, several times, about what we might do about certain traditions. We started with “no tree,” decided on “a real tree with just lights, no ornaments,” put up a small fake tree with lights instead, couldn’t bear to have the lights on so kept it unplugged, bought a four-foot pink aluminum lit tree for the hallway, talked about buying a real tree and leaving it outside until we got back from NYC, decided against a real tree, and finally, my husband came home with a real tree just days before Christmas. My daughter and I chose purple and white lights for it, went on a last-minute shopping spree to Big Lots, bought shiny, glittery, pink and purple and lime green plastic decorations for a buck or two each, and had a laughter-filled afternoon decorating our “Eloise tree.” Currently I’m still deciding whether to hang one significant ornament in honor of my son, and even as I write this, the perfect ornament comes to mind. (It’s an antique barbershop singer that I found on Ebay for him last year, which he received as a gift, but it never made it onto our tree).

12. Grieve when I need to and experience comfort and joy when the moment is right.

I learned a lot this year about what feeds my soul at Advent, and which activities drain the joy out of the season. I’ve learned when I can do what I need to do, and when I must bend to the needs of others. But most of all, I’ve learned about how beautiful Advent and Christmas truly are when you cling to the hope that is the center of the season.


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