by Molly Senecal
It’s an irony that when we lose a child or a loved one, the holidays — once the shiniest and brightest moments — become some of the darkest, longest days for those of us who walk among the bereaved.
A time when we start to dread leaving the house, or even (some days) our bed.
As of writing this, I am new to my grief, having just barely lived through a full year without my daughter (how is that possible?), and I have found the months from September to January the hardest.
These months are a slew of painful flagstones that seem to get bigger and heavier until, stacked upon each other, I find myself nearly swallowed by the weight of my grief.
It starts small with an almost-not-quite holiday — September’s back-to-school flurry. Which builds up over the course of the following months of October, November, December, and then finally January, which seems oh so far away.
September starts abruptly. Everything shouts, ‘Back to School!’ But my daughter will never go back to school again. I will never have another first-day-of-school photo, and there will be no shopping for school supplies, or new clothes again.
I hold my breath, and I try not to cry.
But I do.
October comes with the smell of burning leaves, pumpkins, and caramel apples. I used to love October. Halloween was our favorite holiday, and I can recall every costume I made by hand, planned months in advance.
We would make elaborate Halloween-themed dinners complete with dry ice for the ‘spooky punch.’
My children would become ecstatic at the sight of a dinner composed of meat-man (meatloaf in the shape of a person), brains (cauliflower with guacamole), and spiders (spaghetti with black food coloring.)
But this year, I didn’t even hand out candy. It was just another sad day that my child was not here.
November carries the anniversary of my child’s death, which sits in the middle of this month – this impossible month. Then Thanksgiving looms in my face like a rude and inconsiderate guest.
“How dare there be a festive, giving-of-thanks holiday during the same month that my child died?” I think to myself.
The thought of putting together an elaborate holiday feast seems impossible and exhausting. I barely have the energy to move through the ordinary grief-days.
Or worse, we are invited to go to someone else’s house and I will need to pretend I am a functioning, social person for a couple of hours.
When we finally sit down with our heavy-laden plates for Thanksgiving dinner, the host will ask us to bow our heads and say, “let us give thanks.”
I will whisper to myself, “I am not thankful.”
I will never be thankful for this loss.
December is the month my child was born — she arrived right next to Christmas, the birth of Christ.
What would I give for her to rise and walk among us again once more!
This is also the month when people put out garish lights, play loud music, and hang obscene decorations of too-happy people with rosy red cheeks. It’s all much too bright, and loud — it is almost painful.
“Was it always like this?” I wonder.
The last thing I want to do is to unpack the holiday decorations, iron the fancy linens, and set up the tree.
I do not want to brave the flurry of activity in town — I might run into someone who doesn’t know I carry this daughter-grief, and they will ask me “how are your children?”
And I will have to decide if I want to tell them that my daughter is dead.
Usually, I force a smile and murmur, “fine, thank you,” and move on — not because I don’t want to tell every living person about my dead daughter, but because I am tired.
I don’t think people understand how exhausting grief is. Not until they have lived with it.
January brings us to New Year’s Day. A reminder that this is another year that my child will not see – that she will not live in.
Every post, every sign shouts “Happy New Year!”
But it’s not a happy new year.
It’s just a new year.
For some reason this anniversary is harder than Christmas and my daughter’s December birthday. It will be another year that I live in where she will not; there will be no new stories of the things she has done or memories with her — ever.
This is heartbreaking; this is the saddest story that I will carry for the rest of my life.
Grief is a wilderness — sometimes I think I can see where I am supposed to go, but most of the time I can’t quite make out where the path is or how this will all settle down to something I can hold in my hands and say — “there. There is my loss and I see it, I know it, and I carry it.”
I made it through this first year. And you will too. I promise you.
It will be hard, and there will always be times when it is hard. There will be dark, dark days when you will claw at this new existence that you did not ask for, at this unfair hand that you have been dealt.
But you will also have soft, velvet gray days when you will sit next to someone else who also walks this path, and both of you will wrap each other in grace and forgiveness, as only the bereaved can.
You will carry the stories of your beloved like smooth river stones between your rib cage, and you will learn that when you hold them, they become warm and this will bring you comfort even as the snow falls around you.
The words ‘she died’ will always rattle between your bones like small birds trying to break free, but you will learn how to call them home, how to settle them down, and, one day, you will know their names.
During these seasons where the long days sleep under blankets of white, we need to draw together for warmth, for survival.
Gathering our heart-warmed, river-rock stories, and our velvet words of grace and forgiveness, let us knit a gentle shawl to wrap around ourselves as we hold each other close, as we wait for the snow to melt.