Grieving a Child During The Holidays

In New York, autumn ushers in a blaze of red, orange and yellow that borders on magical. I’ve never minded that it was temporary because there was so much to look forward to when my children were small, my family whole. But my kids aren’t small anymore. My younger daughter is 15. My older daughter, Ana, is gone. She died two years ago at the age of 15.

Now, autumn feels like an affront. In the next six weeks, all that spectacular color will disappear.

Winter was the last season of Ana’s life and winter gave her nothing but endless grey.

Right now, as I write this, the trees are turning gold and orange. They’re antiquing at the edges, preparing for the full autumn blaze. They’re beautiful, in this first breath of autumn. It shouldn’t break my heart, but it does.

I’m nursing a remembered feeling of excitement, moving toward the promise of what was once a series of cherished family traditions — Pumpkin picking, Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving dinner, picking out our tree, shopping for gifts, baking cookies, wrapping presents. I never loved any of these things as much as I did when it was done through the lens of being a mother.

We were so lucky. We were so blessed. I had no idea.

I hate that the holidays have become something to endure instead of enjoy. It seems important that people know that. I want to celebrate again. I want to feel that astounding giddiness that spread from my children to me each and every year for fifteen years. But there’s a dark shadow in its place — a stillness that settled into my soul the moment , the very second , that my daughter’s heart stopped beating.

I don’t know if I can find my joy again — at least, not alone.

I need people to know this about me — about all parents who’ve lost a child — the holidays will always hurt. We need you to be gentle. We need your kindness. We need your help.

My younger daughter loves Christmas. She deserves more than my grief. I’m trying to rekindle some of my past enthusiasm for the holidays, I really am, but it’s so hard. It’s perpetually exhausting.

Grief is climbing a steep hill with my pockets full of stones. Grief is a road I thought I was walking toward, but when I looked up it was gone, washed away by cancer, my future turned to dust. Grief is a huge fist, smashing all the bright Christmas ornaments and festive packages, creating only rubble. Grief is the Christmas tree that turned brown because I was too heartsick to care about watering it.

Grief is an invisible wake trailing behind me. It follows me silently, dragging the ground, a tiny shadow as familiar as my own skin.

This wake is evidence that my grief is too big for me to contain. It spills out from the ruined part of my heart into the world, making everyday things a little harder to do. I deal with it though, for the most part, until something triggers me. Then the shadow grows and grows, bubbling out from that desolate place deep inside me.

That’s another thing I need you to know — the holidays are filled with triggers — poking at my grief, making it rise up again and again.

This month the sharp smell of a crisp autumn morning stirred it up. It immobilized me as I dragged the reluctant dog outside one last time before turning in for the night. I felt the grief unroll and uncoil until it was a cloud, enveloping me. I stood there crying, pairing that familiar smell with the flushed cheeks of a long-gone 8-year-old who had anticipated autumn days with endless joy.

I stood there with the shivering dog as the cloud poured out from the soles of my feet, from my aching heart, from my own ragged breath, covering me and the night with its heavy reality. It hit me — how much I’d lost, how much I’m still losing.

It’s not just that I’m missing Ana at 15, the age she was when she died. It’s missing her at 1, at 5, at 8, at 15 and at all the ages in between. It’s missing 18-year-old Ana who I’ll never get to meet. It’s missing two sisters conspiring over presents, and sitting beside each other on Christmas morning, patient in their reverence for the holiday, content to watch each other open gifts.

I will learn how to reinvent the holidays, or I won’t. When I ask for help, I’m not asking for action or advice. I’m asking, simply, for understanding.

If you know a bereaved parent — maybe it’s your sister, your uncle, your coworker, your best friend — try to imagine that invisible wake of grief that’s always trailing behind them. Maybe they don’t talk about it, but I’m here to tell you that it’s there. It’s what keeps them home during the holidays, hiding in quiet houses, immobile with the enormity of their loss.

There’s nothing to be done. Everyone deals with grief differently. I personally don’t want advice. I don’t want platitudes. I don’t need any of that. I need patience, a little extra love, and to hear my daughter’s name.

I think, understandably, people don’t talk about Ana because they don’t want to remind me of what I’ve lost. But whether you speak her name or not, the loss is always there. What I need people to know is that hearing Ana’s name is a balm to my soul, a reminder that she was here. It’s a way, however small, to celebrate her life.

This is what makes the grief recede until it’s manageable and gives joy a chance to rise up in place of sorrow.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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