Two and a half years ago, I lost my little brother to suicide. It was mid-October when we said our final good-byes and each day after that was putting one foot in front of the other. The holidays came and I had no idea how I’d get through them, not only for myself, but for my children. I have three kids who were all close to my brother and I struggled with honoring all of our grief and providing them with a happy holiday season. It did not seem possible.
My husband and I made the mistake of overbuying that year. There were so many presents under that tree, ones I cannot even remember buying, because we were so desperate to bring them some semblance of joy. In hindsight, we knew in our hearts if every toy in the world was under that tree, it would not change the fact that they were wishing for the one thing they could not have, one more day with my brother. We slogged through Christmas morning and visited with family the rest of the day. We all put on a good show. We smiled, we laughed, but we were aching inside. After saying good-bye to family, we packed in the car and headed home. No one said a word for a while. Then, I heard a little sniffle. My middle child, who never cries unless a bone is broken, was crying. Her sister grabbed her hand and we all joined in the symphony of tears. We were all crying for how much we missed him, how angry we were that he was not here, and how much this new normal was not one we wanted. In my twelve and a half years of parenting, that drive home was one of the most heartbreaking.
We are now entering the holiday season and we are a bit more prepared. We know there are certain days that are harder than others, certain songs that make us cry, and we all know that will never be filled. There are some things we’ve adopted that have helped us get through the holidays.
The second Christmas without my brother, my five year old son asked if we could still buy him a present, just in case he was watching. I loved this idea, but I was not sure how it would play out. Sounded a bit strange buying a present for a dead person. So, rather than buy my brother a present, we picked a charity that he would like, usually having to do with music or film, and donated money in his name. The money we would spend on his gift each year is then turned in to a charitable donation. In some small way, this keeps him present.
Every Christmas Eve, we watch our old video camcorder tapes. This is both heart warming and heartbreaking. We spend fifty percent of the time laughing, fifty percent crying. But, that’s okay. Hearing his raspy voice, seeing his freckled face, savoring his sarcastic remarks, they make us all feel a bit better. In some strange way, it puts him in our living room. Yes, sometimes the ache is greater than the wound, but in the end, the wound closes back up, stitched with the joy he brought into our lives. After we watch the videos, we all pick one memory to share and ninety-nine percent of the time, it is a positive one. We all go to bed on Christmas Eve in our Christmas jammies and our hearts full of love for my brother.
What I’ve learned is there is never any joy without the ache. Every holiday, every birthday, every family get together, every time I see all my young cousins together, the ache chokes me. If I give in to the sadness for a few minutes, acknowledge that pain, walk through it, then I can come out the other side and soak up the joy. Because, in all this darkness, it has made me seek the light. The light is what saves us, the darkness is what consumes us. Darkness will chase you until you lean into it, trust me. I avoided so many things in my grief that I’m just now dealing with. The holidays are not easy. Family dynamics are tough and tumultuous. If you prepare your heart for the darkness, it will be ready for the light. It’s okay to cry on Christmas. It’s okay to make new traditions and celebrate old ones. It’s okay to sob while you bake cookies. It’s okay to move on. That last sentence was told to me by my doctor when I was struggling with more than I could handle. Her words were the best gift I’ve received because moving on does not mean forgetting. It is possible to carry on and move on without leaving the ones we’ve lost behind. Honoring their memory is just as important as celebrating your holiday. For those struggling, I’m not going to lie to you and say it gets better. It doesn’t. But, your heart learns what it needs. Listen to it. If you need to throw back a stiff egg nog to get through a family function, do it (safely). If you need a night to look at old photos with a tissue box beside you, do it. If you need to decorate your house like Sparky Griswold, do it. If you need to buy yourself something to make you feel good, do it. In honoring your loved one’s life, don’t forget to honor your own and those around you. Let the light in.