When I was a kid, my family had the same Christmas every year. The packages under the tree changed…the tree might have sat in a different spot in the room, but the essence of Christmas was the same at our house.
My younger brothers and I would practice our early morning get to the tree without parent detection. This daily preparation began as soon as the Halloween candy was gone. We would hug the walls trying to avoid those squeaky floor boards, we would try new and inventive ways to flip out of bed….we were Christmas secret agents. But no matter how efficient and effective, my mother, the 007 of Christmas secret agents, always heard us when December 25th rolled around. And we were sent scurrying for our covers.
One of the other traditions for us kids was the pestering of when can we put up the tree?. The picking out the perfect tree was the defining moment that meant Christmas would surely be here. We would hover impatiently around Dad who was trying to sort out the lights, with Christmas decorations heavy in our hands ready to pounce. This activity transformed all other days of the year. My mother would stand back and let us turn this tree into Our Christmas tree. However, the next day, after returning home from school, the tree would look subtly different as she had taken her time to distribute more evenly the chaos we had left behind.
The year that my mother died we had been very effective in getting our parents moving on getting the tree. The tree was up and decorated. We had moved into Christmas mode the magic, all we needed was snow. But life had another plan for us. On December 13th, which was a Friday my mother had a heart attack and died. This was the first time in my life that I had ever experienced my life being tossed in the air..and although I was not alone, this was all the more terrifying knowing that all the important people in my life were behaving as lost as I felt. And Christmas was forgotten.
I would think that most people would agree that Christmas is particularly significant for children. We hang on to those memories of our Christmas as children, remembering that magical time. And Christmas as an event is organized and managed by the adults in picture. When someone important to you dies, there is a big hole at Christmas time, one that is hard, if not impossible to fill.
In my work I have heard a lot of new adult grievers say; I just wish I could forget about Christmas, or Christmas is not going to happen at our house this year. And although I understand and respect their choices, I think about the children in those households. That Christmas at my house the year my mother died, is forever seared in my mind. It was pretty darn sad and dismal. We have home movies of the funeral flowers arranged in front of the tree. I look now on those shell shocked faces looking back at my fathers home movie camera, and a part of my heart breaks anew for us.
But one of the things that strikes my thinking is my father reached beyond his own sorrow to try his best to make even this Christmas possible for us. We still had our morning ritual of unwrapping presents and Christmas dinner. And yeah, the day had other events, like doing the laundry and ironing, because we just had to do something. And my brothers and I scattered to friends homes to escape the obvious for a little while. But my Dad still tried to preserve the magic my mother had worked so hard to create for us.
As a professional, I encourage people to do what their hearts tell them to do. But that little kid in me also reminds them to not forget the children in their lives. Sometimes, it is helpful to sit down with your kids, and talk about what this holiday means to them. You may find that they do not need all the hoopla that they are accustomed to. It is helpful to acknowledge that that special person won’t be with you physically at Christmas, and explore how your family would like to acknowledge them. Perhaps by lighting a special candle, visiting the cemetery or giving a gift to someone on their loved ones behalf may go a long way to ease the sorrow. Often I am amazed at the more creative and significant ideas that the families with whom I work come up with.
As an adult, when I look back on that significant Christmas day, I realize even more fully the effort that it took all of us to turn our faces toward life, and to acknowledge each other as also significant. I believe that sometimes the best way to honor the person who has died is to try and live your life well. Merry Christmas.