The holiday season is usually a time of cheer — a time for giving, spending quality time with family and friends, and bringing the past year to a close in wake of what’s to come. One thing we never imagine is spending the holidays without our loved ones. We never think about what it would be like to not have a sibling, parent, or friend around to celebrate with us.
I can think back to the countless wishes I made to Santa as a child. All I wanted was that new Barbie, that stuffed animal that was bigger than me, or my very own puppy. I remember the excitement and joy if Santa listened and I remember the happiness that my family shared around the tree each Christmas morning.
I never thought that my holiday wishes would change so drastically, so quickly.
In December 2010 I was 18 and returning home to my family for the holidays. I had been away at college and couldn’t wait to spend some time with my family. But when I got there I quickly fell into a mood and got really negative. I had lost the magic of Christmas and couldn’t figure out why I felt so stuck and unhappy.
My brother Derek (who was 21 at the time) always knew how to cheer me up so he tried his best to make me smile. He made jokes, acted like a goof, and chased me around with ‘the claw’ like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. It made me laugh for a while, but I soon returned to being a cynical grump and wishing my visit away. I didn’t realize the magnitude of my actions or how this would later come back to haunt me.
Right after the holidays I left, apologizing to my parents and brother for being so moody and telling them I loved them. A month later, on January 30, 2011, I received a call from my mom that changed everything: Derek had just had an allergic reaction to a prescription drug and passed away.
It was impossible; everything felt like it was crumbling down around me. I had been texting with him the night before… how was it possible that I was never going to see him again?!
In the blink of an eye my life had flipped upside down.
The journey through grief was crazy. I returned home for a week, cried and reminisced with family and friends, and tried to get a handle on the magnitude of the situation. I clung to memories of him and thoughts of his bright smile because that was all that I had.
But the biggest regret I have is about how I wasted our last time together. Of course, there is no way to predict these kinds of events, but the very last moments I spent with Derek included me being moody and unappreciative. Without knowing it, I had taken our time for granted. I had forgotten how fragile and uncontrollable life is. Instead of making the most of this time, I had let it pass me by.
Now, every year when the holidays come around, I hold a totally different meaning to them. I still try and make the best of it, but Christmas has forever changed. While friends talk about all the family gatherings or share their happy moments, there is a small hole in my heart that cannot be filled.
All the holiday cheer can be extremely difficult when you’re grieving. Of course, it is nice to see others happy and joyous, but you are bringing close to another year without your loved one — and that is really hard to celebrate.
If you are grieving this holiday season, please know that you are not alone and that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to handle yourself.
I have found that honoring my own needs is something that helps me during this time. If you want to stay busy and surrounded by happy people to lift your spirits up, do that! But if you are feeling down and need some time to mourn and grieve, do that! Only you know what you need in each moment.
Sometimes I think back to past Christmases and smile. I remember how blessed I was for 18 years with my beautiful brother and I focus on all the good times. I remember how blessed I am now to still be here experiencing life and having people around who care about me. But sometimes I need to have a big cry as I imagine what it would be like to give him a hug or speak to Derek like he is sitting right beside me again. I think that all of these responses are normal and a part of the grieving process.
If you aren’t grieving I have two suggestions.
First, reach out to those who you know are grieving. Chances are they are having a tough time during the holidays and your concern and support will mean more than you could ever know. And secondly, make the most of the time you have with friends and family. Remember to appreciate each moment because life is short. It can be so easy to get caught up in the small things (like I did in 2010) and miss out on what you have.
The magic of the holiday season may be upon us, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be feeling the magic. Some will be struggling with grief, some will be struggling with a recent loss of their job, and some will be struggling to put food on the table. Yet even amongst all the struggles, there is still likely something or someone we can be grateful for. I no longer wish for stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, or money at Christmas.
All I truly want is another moment with Derek or another chance to re-do our last Christmas.
Because I know that is impossible, I am focusing on trying to be as happy as I possibly can be. And with that said, no matter what your holidays look like this year, I want to wish you love and light for the holiday season.
You may also enjoy reading Healing From Grief: 5 Tips to Help, by Kathe Crawford