By Bart Sumner
When the general population thinks of holiday expectations images of children nestled snuggly in their beds having visions of sugarplums come to mind. We remember back to the days when our excitement for the upcoming toy orgy would make us, as those terminally cute kids in the Disney World commercial say, “Too excited to sleep.” As we get older, the department stores, television stations and 24 hour Christmas music assaults all prime us with expectations that the coming holidays will be the best ever. Of course, the expectations never come to fruition. On Santa’s big day your crazy drunken uncle Leon always shows up to ruin the festivities with off color jokes or inappropriate groping, or as was so wonderfully portrayed in A CHRISTMAS STORY, the neighbor’s dogs eat your Christmas dinner right off the kitchen table. As with almost anything in life, what we anticipate happening never comes to pass and what we do get is something completely different, sometimes good, sometimes bad. As John Lennon so prophetically sang, “Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans.”
For those of us grieving the loss of a dear one at the holidays though, it’s the expectations that can be the most horrible thing to deal with. From the first jingle bell we hear, the holidays take on the countenance of the Polar Express bearing down on us like a massive steel beast of sadness and depression that is inescapable as we are bound helplessly by tinsel and bows to the tracks of despair. It seems that everything we see, smell and hear brings back the memories of celebrations gone by filled with laughter and joy, and the loved one who is so glaringly absent from the current holiday planning. But I have discovered in the 4 years since my 10-year-old son David died, it is in fact these expectations that prove to be the worst of it. The weeks of dreading the holiday’s arrival grow more and more intense. The days leading up to the big celebration become filled with mood swings and excessive indulgence in destructive yet comforting behaviors like overeating or binge drinking. And the onslaught of holiday parties makes this easy. It’s safe to say that if you look around at the revelers at your next big holiday gathering, the person who is the loudest caroler and seemingly full of the most enthusiastic holiday cheer may in fact just be working the hardest at warding off the most horrible of Ghosts of Christmases Past.
What has surprised me the most during the Christmases since David’s death is that on the actual day, the fears I have of horrible bouts of tears and anger tend to never materialize. Perhaps it is because the days preceding have been so full of angst and sorry that by the time it actually arrives my grief engine is running on empty. Or possibly it’s as simple as such infinitesimally less dreaded events like a shot from the doctor or visit to the dentist that just never prove to be as horrible as imagined. But more often than not the actual holiday tends to be a relatively “good” day, especially in comparison to the prelude.
That’s not to say that there are not tears. No, there is always a moment when the emptiness finds a place to express itself. But I have found more often than not, just as with tears of grief, holiday tears tend to be healing tears, and full of love. The tears on holidays are shed from beautiful memories of days gone by. These memories are good memories, full of warmth and tenderness. And though they are born of longing, they represent the entire reason the holidays exist. Love. Family. Giving. They remind me that in the not too distant past I was blessed with wonderful riches, and they hold the promise that life moves forward.
I have found a few things that help during the holiday season to keep David close to me, and to keep his spirit, and the holiday spirit, alive. My boy loved to give at the holidays. He liked taking extra food to the homeless shelter or making sandwiches and finding those in need in our community and giving them some care packages full of the things he loved most at the holidays: Chex party mix, Christmas cookies, chocolate Santas. Because of this, every year my wife and I make sure to donate to a local shelter what we can to help those that don’t have anything have something extra during the holidays. We also search out a local “Giving Tree” where we can select a child to donate to directly. We always chose a 10-year-old boy, and try to give them what they ask for on the tag hung from the tree. We always include our daughter in the process, to keep her engaged with her brother’s memory and the concept of giving to others who are in need.
And as for the most personal of expectations, I have found that the holiday traditions I was taught by my parents, which were passed down from their parents and on back, are an important part of the holidays. Decorating the tree and house. Putting up holiday lights. They all bring back memories of my boy. And though the very first time you do these things after you lose someone dear can be very difficult, it is important to your healing. Just as we cannot avoid experiencing grief if we plan to move forward, these traditions performed in the days before a holiday help us stay in touch with those we’ve lost. The tears turn to laughter as the years progress, and hanging ornaments that had meaning to those gone, and carrying on old traditions give us connection not only to future generations, but to the past which is no longer physically present.
As with all things, fear is the enemy. Anticipation of pain is always worse than the actual pain, and most certainly lasts longer. Find things to turn the hurt into a positive while taking the time to grieve when you need to. Remember to do what is best for you. No one else can tell you what you need to do to move forward and find peace. Do not let others place demands upon you about what you should be feeling or doing. You have enough on your plate with your own helping of holiday expectations; you don’t need someone else’s badly made green bean casserole of holiday anxiety. Remember it is the season of Peace and Love, and giving yourself these gifts is as important as giving them to others. Do the best you can, and have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.