For the past two weeks I have been trying to find the right words for an eloquent post about the holidays and grief. Today I gave up and decided just to write this.
My parents and I look startled in photographs taken the first Christmas after my brother died. In the photos where we manage smiles our faces are pained. When I remember that Christmas I feel a little breathless, as if someone has punched me in the gut.
Here's the thing: I pride myself on being able to tell people that living with the suicide of a loved one is possible. Life does go on. You can forgive. It's hard, and it takes time, but yes, it really does get easier.
Except for this, for me. In the last nine years, I haven't recovered Christmas.
It really bothered me at first. Christmas had always been a warm, gathered glow in the center of my chest. Through all the changes in our lives--moving from Michigan to Alabama, moving from Alabama to Chicago, getting married, Matt going off to school--my feelings about Christmas had remained the same.
As the years without my brother wore on, even as my grief softened and my relationship with his death changed, I continued to dread Christmas. The travel wore me out. The large gatherings of family overwhelmed me. Gifts seemed hollow and wasteful. I wasn't grieving any more, so where was this coming from?
The holidays are our lives as they are, intensified. If our parents are divorced or some of our relatives don't get along, we are forced to split time. The people we've lost, or the children we've been unable to have, are empty chairs at the table, ghosts in the pauses in conversation.
But that's only part of it. The real culprit running underneath it all is the expectation that we are supposed to be happy. Merry. Joyful. It is, after all, "the most wonderful time of the year."
One of the roots of suffering (according to Buddhism) is the refusal (or inability) to accept impermanence. We grasp at pleasant feelings and push away unpleasant ones. After Matt died my warm, chest gathered glow disappeared, and I wanted it back. Year after year I did all the things I thought I was supposed to do (baking cookies, hanging ornaments and lights, sending cards, giving gifts, singing carols), all with the intention of resurrecting a feeling that was never going to last.
This year I am giving myself the gift of permission to experience the holidays as they are, and myself as I am. I'm allowing myself to feel the losses of the past several years. I'm blowing off Christmas cards altogether (sorry everyone). I don't even have a tree.
I hope that in future years I will continue to make whatever changes I need to make to honor and accept however the holidays feel. I hope others will do the same.
Whether you're having a merry whatever-you-celebrate, or doing whatever you need to do to survive, I wish you peace and gentle awareness. And the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.