From the time my daughter Ana was born in May 2001, until the day she died in March 2017, I was content to bask in the happy distractions of the holiday season.
For the fifteen years that Ana was alive, I gave both my daughters the Christmas that I always wanted as a Jewish kid who grew up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. You might’ve known a kid like me. We had one decoration, an electric menorah in our front window. We went out for Chinese food on Christmas Day.
After the girls were born, I celebrated Christmas the way I’d always wanted to — Norman Rockwell style (minus the religious trappings and all the cooking). But the tree, the lights, the presents, the stockings, the music, the gallons of cocoa and hours of Christmas-themed entertainment, all of it was mine.
Everything changed after Ana died. Grief is hard even when it’s not the most “wonderful” time of the year and that first Christmas without Ana was excruciating. I went through the motions for my younger daughter, but the entire holiday season spanning from Halloween to New Year’s Day was something I endured, rather than celebrated.
In the last two years, the holidays have presented a minefield of triggers — an endless foil-wrapped, jingle-belled maze of despair. For me merry has been the new sad.
I’m tired of feeling like this.
The holidays aren’t going away and neither is my grief, so maybe the two can coexist. As I head into my third holiday season without Ana, I can feel the sorrow rise up (as usual), but I also feel something else — anticipation. I’m actually looking forward to the holidays a tiny bit more this year. As such, I’m inspired to figure out a way to find joy amidst my grief, to somehow let both feelings coexist together.
The first challenge is Thanksgiving, a holiday that Ana absolutely loved and was unbearable the first year after she died.
The pain was everywhere that year — the empty spot at the table, the mashed potatoes that came out exactly the way she liked them, her sister, hiding upstairs all alone. It was relentless. I consumed way too much alcohol to get through the day, but it was nothing compared to what came next — Christmas.
On that first painful year, I felt the rush of giddy anticipation (not my own) as stores dropped all pretense of self-restraint and announced the arrival of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday. I wasn’t ready for it. I’m never ready for it — not anymore, which is why I’ve begun changing my Christmas rituals to better accommodate my grief. At the top of the list, is the way I shop for gifts.
For me, a trip to the mall used to be inevitable after Thanksgiving. That first year, I waited an entire week to make sure all signs of Black Friday had faded, but I couldn’t put it off forever. My younger daughter needed jeans and a birthday present for her friend, so we drove thirty minutes to a two-story mall that pulsed with Christmas music and fluorescent light.
I realized my mistake when I saw people milling around the entrance holding armloads of shopping bags. I wanted to turn around when I walked into Macy’s and was blinded by the red and gold decorations that bedazzled every available surface.
Somehow I survived two hours in that place of excess and joy before dragging my daughter out and vowing to finish my shopping locally. Last year, that’s exactly what I did. This year, my goal is to get 95% of my shopping done at small, local boutiques and holiday craft fairs. I’m actually looking forward to this (as opposed to dreading it) because I know I’ll find unique, meaningful gifts while supporting local businesses and artisans.
Learning to recognize what triggers me is half the battle — that’s why avoiding the mall, as simple as it seems, is helping me find my holiday footing again. Another big trigger? Snow.
Ana died in March and it snowed almost constantly during the last few weeks of her life. She could barely eat, but developed a craving for snow. I would go outside and look for the purest, whitest, fluffiest snow and pile it into one of those wide-mouthed mugs (the kind reserved for soup or hot chocolate) and bring it up to her room. Thus, even though the positive memories of snow vastly outweigh the negative ones, it is the memory of trudging outside with that wide-mouthed mug and retrieving snow for my dying child that remains with me.
I can’t avoid snow like I can avoid the mall, but this year I’m going to try to change my reaction to snow. I’ve got some ideas in mind — sledding with my 15-year-old daughter, building a snowman on the lawn, and taking photographs of birds in the snow are a few thoughts.
I want to love snow again, so I’m going to try to let the bad memories fade and see snow the way my kids did once upon a time — as something cozy and beautiful and festive.
As time passes, I am starting to realize that no single holiday, not even Christmas, is the cause of my pain. I got through the first year by gritting my teeth and enduring the holidays. Last year was slightly easier, but I still felt a knot in my stomach as the holidays approached, still breathed a sigh of relief when they were over.
Now the third holiday season without Ana is here, but this time I’m not dreading it. By now, I recognize that if it’s not Christmas, it’s something else — the day she died (in March), her sister’s birthday (in April), her birthday (in May), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so many days and moments in between.
If I view each holiday and ritual as something to merely survive until it’s over, then I will live the rest of my life hating each month for the sin of reminding me about a past I can never recreate. Ana wouldn’t have wanted that.
My memories of Thanksgiving, Christmas and the first snow of winter are recalled through the lens of my children’s excitement, joy, anticipation and happiness. That is a good thing and it makes me happy. That is a good thing and it breaks my heart.
Since Ana died, I’ve been going through the motions, waiting for the holidays to pass. This year, I want more. I want to embrace Christmas again, not just for my surviving daughter, but for myself. I want to wrap Ana’s memory into this year’s traditions joyfully and with intention. I want to delight in the perfect silence of the year’s first snowstorm while drinking hot cocoa and watching a dozen holiday movies — the old favorites and some new ones too.
I want to breathe a sigh of contentment — not relief — after Christmas is over and I’m sitting in my living room watching Emily play her brand new Nintendo Switch (shhh, it’s a surprise). I want to feel the warmth from a candle that burns beside Ana’s photo on a mantel overflowing with decorations. I know there will be sadness, but I’m okay with that. I’m ready, at last, to try and find the path back to real celebration.