Few of us are ready to assume the position and the responsibility that comes with our new role in the family when a parent dies, no matter what our age. My mother died of ovarian cancer, when I was a young mother. I assumed Mom’s holiday rituals and family duties because I thought she would have expected that of me. I really didn’t want to be in charge (the men in my family would protest but it‘s true). If life could have been normal again with Mom at the wheel driving us into that celebration frenzy that only she could plan, I would have gladly given up job.
Thankfully, Dad began to create a life without her, creating new traditions but still honoring our history. Going to “Pop’s” house was a treat for all of us. Dad, ever humble and generous, never gave up his place as head of the family – he just humored me about my illusion of being in charge. I realized that grieving the loss of my mother had sidetracked him and it was simply my turn as the oldest to step up. I did it well until that first Christmas after our five-year-old son, Kevin’s death. All the rules had changed.
I was eight months pregnant, struggling with the responsibility of birthing a new life when all I wanted was my brown-eyed little boy. How could we give our eight-year-old daughter, Amber, the Christmas she deserved when the intense grieving in our house threatened our good sense and well-being?
I just couldn’t do Christmas. Our solution was to give Amber the Disneyland trip we had been planning before Kevin died. As soon as we passed through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, I knew we made a mistake. What were we thinking? The happiest place on earth became a prison of music, lights, and decorations holding my heart hostage. Sadly, only a few photographs prompt my recollection of that miserable trip. The truth is, every photo screamed the absence of our Kevin. Even now, it is still painful to see.
It wouldn’t matter where we were…we were not conscious so how could we be present? I promised myself that I would never spend another holiday wandering around an amusement park looking for the magic of Christmas. The holidays would be different no matter what we did or how far we traveled. I returned home determined to be more conscious about the next one. Honoring our history with Kevin would create a space for the old and the new traditions to co-exist. Out of despair came a vow to be conscious of my own needs.
It took some practice (and many tears) but I realized that becoming aware of my triggers was the key to getting through the holidays. Each “trigger” activated a memory and was actually a call for me to change a perception I had about the way I grieved at that moment. Once I recognized the “trigger of the moment,” I could choose how to respond or react – sing the Christmas song or turn off the radio; bake our favorite cookies or buy them; battle the shopping crowds or shop online – all my choice, without apology. The most important thing was to acknowledge each trigger as a gift of understanding and acceptance about my deepest loss. It’s been 20 years of practice, and being present to my grief and my healing is an empowering gift that keeps on giving.
© 2011 Carla Bowey