This week is the celebration of Christmas for many in the world. It’s also a week that, for some we call Gold Star families, will be cloaked in grief and loss. Six American soldiers were killed by suicide bomb in Afghanistan this week. Christmas, 2015. As I consider the magnitude of loss for them this time of year, I recall the first year my own grief and celebration collided. Christmas, 2013. The first Christmas of my life without mom on earth.
She passed away on the first day of Spring that year. Oddly, I’m glad it was a day easily marked by the calendar. I didn’t want to forget the last time she was physically near. It’s a strange feeling – wanting to remember when your parent died. And yet, I quietly did the same when my father passed away. He died the day after my nephew’s birthday. First day of Spring, a birthday, Christmas. What do we do when grief collides with celebration? Perhaps resilience is built on the ability to reconcile the two.
Knowing that we can remain resilient and grow in the midst of such a pain as grief is one of the ways we cope.
Being able to say to oneself, “I did it. I survived this.”, can be a remarkable comfort in times of seemingly insurmountable strife. For me, it is vital to have a mental stronghold to break my fall when I find myself grappling with painful emotion. Because of my work as a psychotherapist, I am constantly compartmentalizing my own hurts so I can keep my clients’ needs in the forefront. And the side effect of that is what knocks me off-balance at times. My own humanity will not allow comfortable denial of such a significant part of me – being on earth without my parents. But, the constant suppression of such sorrow in the midst of everyday living becomes difficult. So, my pain eventually finds its way to the surface, ofttimes at the strangest, most unexpected moments.
That’s what happened the December after my mother died when I walked into the seasonal Hickory Farms store and smelled the aroma of smoked sausage and cheese. That day, my grief and my celebration collided. I found myself quickly scurrying from the store. Several weeks earlier, my son had mentioned that he missed getting his treat package full of sausage and cheese from Nana this year. He’d known the joy of that gift for the past 18 years. Until that year, 2013. His words were the first tug at the hem of my pain and so when I entered the store it was only a matter of seconds before my grief, which I thought was safely packed away inside my soul – where I keep all things painful – would emerge to grip me unmercifully. The salesperson, thankfully, was not one to follow me through every square inch of my stroll through the store. This allowed me a private moment to notice what was swelling inside me. And when my eyes began to sting with tears, I swiftly made my way out the door. Gratefully, I am able to normalize these moments for myself. So I embraced the sweet awareness that being nudged closer to memories of my mom is a blessing. My moment of sorrow turned into a peaceful presence. It felt as though she was right there with me, teasing me a bit for being so silly. Then, gently reminding me that over the years she’d missed her parents, too. I can hear her now, in her southern drawl, “I miss my mama and daddy everyday. You’re supposed to miss your parents.” My mother was the first person in my life to teach me that being tolerant of feelings was a normal part of growing, and in that, growth is lifelong.
Today, I realize that perhaps it’s more about me and my growth than the fact that my parents are gone. Maybe I’m wanting to mark days of my life that forever change me – days that I believe are meant to help me grow and more surely know my purpose on this earth. It’s like that old practice of taking a pencil to mark the height of your child against a door frame – so that over the years the milestones can be noted. Maybe the point of enduring the stresses of life is to see and celebrate the growth. Perhaps someone in our lives is watching and searching for a clue of how to get through tougher times. We are a concrete being. We need proof that all is eventually okay – that we are going to be okay. We need to know that our presence here is noted as important and that those steps we take to survive are not taken in vain.
I’m not really confident I know my importance here in this life. And let’s face it, without our parents here to validate us, that knowing is sometimes even more out of reach. I do know I want to pass on to my own child the keys to finding his purpose. I want him to embrace grief and quickly turn it into moments of warm memories that nudge him into a more peaceful presence, without being burdened by sadness and sorrow. I want him to know that regardless of what he feels in any given moment, those moments are a bridge to better times in which he will feel stronger and sure that he will see better days. I want him to feel validated and recognize his own strength.
Someday I’ll be sending my son and his family Christmas gift packages of sausage and cheese. Until then, I hope I’m able to teach him about turning sorrow into peace. And that with or without me and his dad around for validation, he is significant and needed on this earth. I want him to use his faith in God, embedded in his soul by the reflection of his worth he finds when he sees my face – his mother. That’s a lofty task – to assure a child of their worth. It’s a life’s work. My mom certainly did a good job of it. Her children were the center of her purpose. I’m daunted by the thought of being for my son what she was for me. I look forward to celebrating his launch into life while making a safe space for my grief to breathe. Each year since her passing, I just close my eyes and remember getting that package from mom each holiday season. Smoked sausage and cheese – and the steadfast love of my mother. Dear Mom, wish you were here. Grateful for all the times you were.
As I reflect on the bittersweet mixture of grief and celebration, I wish for those whose grief has the sting of newness a peace and strength to remain resilient. Whether Gold Star families or others, remain encouraged that your grief is also a celebration of the love you held for another.
If your grief has collided with holiday celebrations this year, please consider reaching out for support –
www.griefnet.org (Grace Happens)
www.veterancrisisline.net or 1-800-273-8255
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255