The first big celebration without my son, Christopher, was his 23rd birthday. He was killed March 21st (1996) and born in May 15th (1974)–I still get the dates mixed up because they are both so significant to me (both months starting with M doesn’t help).
We were all so unsure what to do to celebrate his birthday without him present. In the end, we did what we always had done when he was with us–a large group of us went to his favorite restaurant, Benihana. We made sure we had enough people to have our own table and chef. We did not know how our grief would act.
We all felt better doing something Christopher loved and which was a family tradition. It is so much easier for me to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” than to pretend it is not there, so we toasted to his special day and felt he would be happy we were all together. I can’t remember for how many consecutive years we followed this particular tradition. It originated before Christopher’s death…but then became a bereavement ritual. Now it has evolved to include other restaurants where we went together as a family, and sometimes we just cook Christopher’s favorite foods at home.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is always held at our home. We have always invited anyone we know who does not have family close by or family to celebrate the holiday with. I cook the main body of the meal, which includes the turkey, cranberry relish–which I make a month in advance with my “mother on earth” (my biological mother passed away three days after Christopher was born)–homemade bread, yams (with marshmallows of course), mashed potatoes, string bean casserole (fresh), gravy and Christopher’s favorite orange Jell-O dish. Our four daughters (three added delightfully through marriage) bring stuffing, ham, carrot soufflé and dessert. A dear friend sends us a Stilton cheese from England every year, which keeps everyone going until dinner is served. After dinner we play games. Gary (now my husband) plays the role of croupier, and everyone has their favorite game. We play bingo, roulette, table soccer, Apples to Apples and Chase the Ace. All pennies won go to the Food Bank.
The first Thanksgiving we set a place for Christopher at the table. My three sisters came from the Seattle area, along with my niece. We had more family present than usual, helping us to feel surrounded by love. The cooking and family guests were welcome distractions from painful grief. You may be surprised that I still looked forward–-no matter how sad I was—to the cooking and the family gathering. The house seemed to swirl with the entire “getting ready” for the meal and setting the tables for the celebration. At dinner we told funny stories about Christopher. He had an unusual talent of being able to balance a spoon on his nose. Family members would try to do it and couldn’t–-mostly because everyone was laughing so hard. At restaurants when Christina and Christopher were small and would get wiggly, I would order them Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples and then challenge them to tie the cherry stem in a knot (it can be done-–I am the champ of this).
Telling these stories worked! They brought Christopher into the room with us and showed us that bereavement isn’t always solemn!
I always gather people in the kitchen right before we eat and do a blessing, with words of wisdom from the year. This is what I said in 1996 (I am not sure where I stole the words from):
May the longtime sun shine upon you,
all the love surround you,
and the pure light within you,
guide your way on.
May the longtime sun shine upon us,
all the love here surround us,
and the pure light within us,
guide us on our way.
May the sunshine reach those not with us,
all our love surround them,
and the pure light within them,
guide us along our way.
Over the years, our place setting for Christopher has evolved to a candle dedicated to him and more recently a candle for “all those who are not with us.” Bereavement changes your traditions—and as the bereavement evolves, the traditions keep changing, too.
As for Christmas and Chanukah, they have always evoked confusion in my life. When I was twelve I went to visit my father for a year in New York, after living with my mother before this. Things were very different in New York; I was used to California. I also discovered I was Jewish; something my mother, who felt we should discover “our own God,” never bothered to mention. This “Jewish” revelation is when “holiday confusion” set in.
Christmas was lovely and simple growing up–a beautiful tree decorated with glass ornaments and beads which had been treasured by our mother. We all decorated the tree together, with a lot of practiced method. And we all received one present. That is just how it was.
Years passed and I settled on the “do both” method (still very limited presents). We celebrated Christmas at home and Chanukah with dear friends
Early Christmas morning, the family would gather at my house. Christopher loved to dress up as Santa Claus. He would put a pillow in his tummy, grab a Santa hat, don a white beard and pass out all the presents. My sister Kristin traditionally made blintzes, served with strawberry jam and sour cream. When she moved away, I took over the cooking tradition.
The first Christmas, I wrote my first holiday letter–ever! I felt people had been so kind to support and love us through such tragedy that I needed to let them know what was going on in our lives.
“Dearest friends and family,
My first wish is to thank you all for being there for us in what has been a very difficult year. The loss of Christopher has changed our lives forever. I also feel that the love of my friends and family during this hard time has changed my life forever in a very wonderful way. It is a difficult way to find out what a loved person you are. I have never written a holiday letter before. I wanted to write each one of you to catch up on what has been happening in our lives….”
That first year, I didn’t think I could face Christopher’s not being “Santa.” I asked my brother if we could go away as a family, and we did. We all flew from our different home locations and met in Arizona. We left on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful time to fly. We had Christmas dinner at our hotel. I brought a small decorated Christmas tree and a candle to light for Christopher. And of course the “Santa” hat.
We agreed ahead of time to exchange names and buy one present, with a spending limit ($75). We also inaugurated a “White Elephant” present exchange, which can get very loud and silly. It has become a favorite part of our celebration. Many of the “white elephants” get left at the restaurant. And every year one “elephant” is voted the funniest of all. One year the honor went to a tall white cat-toilet-brush–holder, which our waiter said his “girlfriend would love!”
This Christmas getaway is one tradition that changed–-and began–with Christopher’s death. The only difference over the years is that we now leave on December 26th, so everyone can spend time with other family too. This family Christmas vacation has become a new tradition. It is a gift that came with Christopher’s death. In our bereavement, Christopher has brought our family closer than we were before.