Family Traditions, Memories, Help Us Reach the New Year

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I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with grief before my son, David, died 7 years ago. Since then my grief journey has taught me about myself, my family, and that grief is an individual journey we all have to travel at some point in our lives. Of course, the holidays, a time of joy and happiness for so many, can be extremely difficult for those who are grieving, often for many, many years. This year my father died, so I now face my first Christmas without my son or my father, and my father’s death has reverberated deeply, dredging up many issues I thought I was at peace with. So, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about facing the holidays, in hopes of helping anyone else struggling, and to remind myself that even though there will be tears, there is still new joy to be found during this time of the year.

David died in early October, right before the holidays kicked off with Halloween. Since his younger sister Abby was only 7, we decided to dive head-first into the holidays for her. Though my mind was foggy and I had trouble keeping focus, I knew our family traditions, and they were something I could focus on to keep moving forward. I know many people feel when they are grieving they can’t take out the decorations or go through the motions of the holidays because every moment is shrouded in pain, but that was what we decided to do.

Make no mistake about it, it took a Herculean effort to bring boxes out of storage and open all the memories that go with them. But looking back on it now, I am so very glad my wife and I did. Yes, I cried. Yes, there were times I felt I could not stand another moment. Yes, we all snapped at each other from time to time. Yes, I probably used food and liquid holiday cheer a bit to numb some of my pain. But buried in the pain and heartache was also the reminder of the tremendous love that there was in our house, and for David.

Every moment, though crippling at times, David was there. His smile, laughter and love was palpable. Of course, that didn’t help make the first year easier, but it did keep us moving forward. We talked about Christmases past. We shared stories, and dare I say it, we even found moments to laugh and remember that our love, both for David and amongst ourselves, had not disappeared, it was right there. In fact it was that love that was making us cry a lot that first year, but it was there.

It’s important to remember through the pain and heartache that it is love that causes the pain. That love never dies, and just as it is impossible to not smile, laugh, and be giddy when you are falling in love, it is impossible to suppress the tears and anger when you are grieving. There is a phrase I am fond of, “Lucid Grieving,” which means that even when you are overtaken by the grief, and your emotions feel completely out of control, if you can remember that the tears are good for your soul, that they are necessary for your survival, then every tear that falls moves you one step closer to finding your road forward. Because we elected to “do the holidays” that first year, each successive year has become easier. There are always tears, but now there is far more joy. David’s memories are now part of the holidays, and the stories we tell that are associated with our traditions, bring us more joy than pain.

I realized last week that this is my daughter Abby’s 8th holiday season without her brother. She was only 7 when he died. She has now had more holidays without him than with him. I asked her if she had thought of that, and she was taken aback when she thought about it. Considering her first few holidays were when she was very young, she has many more holiday memories without him than with him.

But he is always there. We always talk about him, and though obviously he is not here physically, he is with us every day none the less. If we had not embraced the holidays after David’s death, we may have built a permanent wall against the holidays. A wall of indifference and anger to those around us. I am thankful to say that Abby is a caring, empathetic young woman who reaches out to others when they are in pain. She understands what we have been through and has learned that there is a way to keep living and thriving through grief. It’s not a lesson any 7-year-old girl should have to learn, but I am forever grateful she learned it.

Of course, this year, now that my father has died, all the family traditions around the holidays have another trap. Many of the traditions we clung to so we could survive losing David were taught to me by my father. He instilled the love of family in me. Every single thing, from making party mix, to putting up the tree and hanging lights, was initially taught to me by my dad. So once again, every tradition comes with melancholy yet again. So, this year I decided to face the grief head on once again. I am making sure to share memories of my dad, about the good times and the times when things perhaps went astray in years past. We laugh about them, and talk about how we kept moving forward. And I did one other thing. I created a memory book of my dad, from a time in his life that came before he was a father, and I will be giving each of my siblings a copy. This year my gift to them is to share some of our dad. I’m sure it will bring some tears. And it will bring laughter. And it will help us all move forward, and heal a bit, and will allow us to keep sharing the traditions he taught us, and pass them forward to our families.

When it comes down to it, that’s what the holidays really are, a chance to parade family traditions out, and to honor the people that taught them to us. To connect us to those that have left us, and remember that our love for them is still here. Love is a gift that doesn’t die, and we can pass that gift on to others. Every year we are sure to donate a toy to a charity for a boy of age 10, the age David was when he died. The connections don’t disappear. Honor the love. Honor those gone. They, and the love we were lucky enough to share with them, are what makes us who we are. Don’t shut the holidays out because someone has died, but rather celebrate the love of the season because they lived, and you were lucky enough to have them in your life, even if it was for way too short a period of time. Peace, Light and Laughter to you, and a Happy New Year.

Bart Sumner

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Bart Sumner is an actor, screenwriter, and improvisational comedy teacher and performer currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife Leslie, daughter Abby, and two dogs. Originally from Union County New Jersey, he is a graduate of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey with a BA in Theatre Arts. He spent over 20 years chasing the Hollywood dream in Southern California. He is a proud member of The Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and has performed in films, television, musical theatre and some of the most prestigious comedy clubs in America. He is also a produced screenwriter and television writer. His son, David, died in 2009 from a severe brain injury suffered while playing football. He is the founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit HEALING IMPROV, which provides no-cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward after loss. Since beginning his work to help others find a path forward through grief, he has spoken and presented nationally on the subject of grief with The Compassionate Friends USA and the Bereaved Parents of the USA. He authored the book HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER, which shares his own grief journey and details how Healing Improv Workshops work while sharing some of the improv exercises used in the workshops. He has been a contributing writer for www.TheGriefToolbox.com and www.HelloGrief.com as well as writing the blog "My Stories From The Grief Journey" at the Healing Improv website. He enjoys pizza and making people laugh.

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