The holidays approach. “Holidays” meaning Thanksgiving, then Advent, Hannakah, Solstice, but ultimately Christmas, and then New Year’s. ‘Tis the season…to be jolly. Increasingly it is a commercialized, consumer event of trees and trimmings, treats and gifts—purchasing an experience of gaity, cheer, warmth, togetherness, presence. When absence is a constant companion, when loss is fresh and raw, when grief is weighty, how do we enter and navigate this season… to be jolly?
Gratitude is almost always the answer to our most heartfelt urgent questions about grief. Gratitude offers a frame for finding a measure of solace within the season. Memories of earlier holidays when he was present, when the family was complete. Examination of past rituals, how they are different without him and marking that, modifying the practices to reflect the new truth, the new reality.
To some extent, our pain arises in the disconnect between the rituals and traditions of before and the reality of now. How can we transform those rituals and traditions, re-enliven them, infuse them with new meaning that speaks to our experience today. That takes time. Amidst the busy-ness of the season, it can be hard to find time or take the time that is all too easily consumed in habitual, meaningless, or expected activities. Throw them all away, and begin anew. One of the graces of grief is casting off of expectations—you have permission to not do anything. So move consciously. Take down the holiday decorations and select, simplify. Put out only those items that have meaning now. Reflect on what that meaning is—how he loved to decorate the tree, light the candles, or place the Christmas crèche. Re-orient it, if only slightly.
We have a lovely Christmas crèche scene. My mother gave us the stable, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the angel for an early Christmas in our marriage. Each year, we purchased a new figure or two—a shepherd with sheep, the wise men, an ox and ass, another angel. And it felt complete. Then one year we expanded the scene to include several little Buddha figures, Ganesh, a cosmic egg—the cosmic crèche. It felt fresh and expansive and true. Now each year as I take out the crèche scene, I am curious how this very traditional practice will find expression this season. One of my favorites was a collage of the world map with scenes of light on every continent—light of the world.
Our family Christmas card began with a Kodak photo card of our infant son our first Christmas 35 years ago, and has been an unbroken tradition ever since. Even the year we travelled to Switzerland for Christmas, no tree, no decorations, but we made black and white photo postcards that we sent back across the sea to 100 of our closest friends. Eventually, it became a New Year’s card, explicitly, as it allowed time and enjoyment to write personal notes during our break following the flurry of Christmas.
The year that Timmy died, I knew we could take a pass on the whole thing. Some people would understand, others wouldn’t even miss our greetings among the many. But I wanted to share, to mark the year, to join our broken hearts with all the messages of joy and peace. Creating the card that year was an opportunity to create and share a small tribute to Timmy, to our family, to the cycle of life. It wasn’t heavy but it was true with a photo of the four of us, me and my husband and our two older children, at the Kauai gathering, with an excerpt from one of the readings about embracing life and love. Each year since has been another opportunity to reflect on the year, where we are with our Timmy grief and also with new cycles of life. This year’s card will highlight our older son’s joyous wedding and there will be a subtle presence of Timmy as his presence and absence has become more muted, more subtle, more integrated into our experience of life.
What are your most precious holiday traditions? Are these also your most painful in time of grief? The loss of this child, his joy in this ritual, the loss of sense of wholeness? What is it for you—the pain and the preciousness? How might you re-create this single precious ritual to honor the missing piece, to bring it to the center, to create presence out of absence, to express gratitude even in loss.
Transforming ritual, creating new tradition does not eliminate or even necessarily soften the pain, but it does make meaning and honor the true feelings of the season, which is the work of healing. Participating in empty or superficial rituals will only lead to feelings of emptiness, especially in times of grief. Dig deep. Extract the nectar from the tears, and open to new possibilities.
Blessings, Sherry Cassedy