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On Holidays and Grief


Before I met Avery, I had no idea that holidays could be cruel. I didn’t know that the happiest time of the year could make me feel like an outsider in a room full of people - people laughing uproariously at an inside joke that I could not understand because I no longer spoke the language of CHEER and BLISS and HOLIDAY HAPPINESS. 

As a kid, holidays really were magical. Both sets of grandparents were within driving distance, so I could wake to one tree, holiday breakfast and mountain of presents on Christmas morning and then wake to a different tree, southern holiday breakfast and another mountain of presents the following morning. 

Pure Heaven.    

As a teenager, holidays began to lose their magic, perhaps because I no longer woke to a steaming, sizzling plate of delicious food, but a threatening, menacing, caloric enemy, anxious to slide down my esophagus and make me fat. 

And once I was over that fear and food slowly became my friend, holidays lost their magic still as adulthood replaced enchantment and whimsy with bills and responsibilities. And I do enjoy Christmas and Thanksgiving, but mostly because I deeply adore spending time with my family, immediate and extended - not because I live for presents and red and green and turkey and pie. 

Okay, I do live for pie. I do and I’m fine with it. I also live for real Christmas trees - no matter where I am or how I feel, the smell of a real Christmas tree is absolute bliss. 

Thanksgiving was the first holiday to survive after Avery was born and I was unprepared for how my grief had changed my ability to celebrate. I tried SO hard to be normal - to pretend to be normal - but, it was no use. My parents and siblings were together in the mountains (a trip that had been planned long before had Avery exploded into the world) and my nuclear family was unable to join, living in high-alert, high-stress mode, shut in our home, nursing a near-comatose Avery back to life. 

And part of me was sad to miss the trip, but another part of me couldn’t grasp the point of celebrating anything. I threw together a special meal for my children, because I really didn’t want to be responsible for them telling a therapist about the year their Mom banned holidays and how it hurt their precious hearts, but my heart was not there. 

My heart was stunned - cold and broken. 

Thanksgiving would never be the same. Nothing would ever be the same. Would Avery live to see more Thanksgivings? Would she ever sit in a seat and feed herself with a fork? Would she ever cook a Thanksgiving pie or bring a boyfriend home to spend the holidays with her family for the first time?  

(Each of those questions remain unanswered.)

My grief was smothering and my marriage was smoldering. Cody left for several hours that day for whatever reason - I don’t remember, but I’m positive that it wasn’t important. He could be set off by anything and disappear without a word and the kids and I would carry on until he calmed down and decided to return. And I was unbothered, because nothing could bother me, I decided. 

I was a robot and he was a tornado.  

Grief does crazy things.  

I am not grieving anymore and my marriage is not unraveling anymore. Holidays are fun and enjoyable. And I’m excited to meet my whole family in the beach for Thanksgiving next week and thrilled to drive to Ohio to be with my family-in-love for Christmas in December, but I cannot unlearn what I learned during that first year of unrelenting grief and pain after Avery’s birth. I cannot unsee the agony that I beheld in the lives of others walking down similar paths and I think of them in the midst of the cheer and festivities and excess each year. 

I think of my cousin, Sara, and her baby girl, Mina - a baby with beautiful brown hair and dark almond eyes, who was born with adrenal cancer and died days later, betrayed by her body as it developed in the safest place on earth. I think of Sara and her family frequently, but especially around the holidays. I think of Mina’s forever empty seat at the table. 

I think of my friend and hero, Jenny, fostering small children as though they were her own, whose house will be more quiet this Christmas, as the children are moving on soon. The kind of quiet that burns ears aching to hear giggles and bickering and whining - anything to replace the silence that means everything has changed. 

I think of mamas bringing sick and broken children home from the hospital for the first time, too scared and exhausted to cook a pie and too overwhelmed by the future to consider hanging ornaments that she will eventually have to take down. The future is too unknown.

I think of two boys and a widow in my town who will experience their first holidays without their dad/husband, murdered for the sake of freedom half a world away. I think of a folded flag and an empty uniform and I wonder how they make through each day without him, let alone Thanksgiving or Christmas. 

And since having Avery, I’ve begun to wonder if someone passed me at the grocery that year, scurrying to buy potatoes and cranberry sauce - would they have been able to tell that I was drowning? How many people are cooking and decorating and buying and scurrying and dying inside this year - too afraid to raise their hand in the middle of the frantic CELEBRATING to say, 

 I am not okay! Someone, please see that I am not okay.  

So, I walk a little slower in the grocery store now and I watch my fellow shoppers a little more closely and I judge strangers and friends alike a lot less harshly. Because, while I am again able to converse in the language of Holidays, I remember the year that I couldn’t and I never want to forget.

So, if that’s you this year, I’m standing with you, shoulder to shoulder, looking out at the cheer and the sales and the glitter and the glamour and knowing that for all the beauty of the next two months, there is so, so much pain. I see the empty seat at your table, I hear the silence in your house, I know that you’re struggling and I’m here... standing with you, ready to cry with you if that’s what you need, ready to be silent or make jokes to distract you if that’s what would be better. Just know, I’m here. 

Hugs - sometimes hugs are the only thing to “say” when no audible word could ever be enough. 

Just hugs.