A few weeks ago, a very old friend emailed me. It was meant to be a sweet, light note, dashed off in the middle of a cluttered workday, and not a grating, hurtful reminder of what was no more. The gist of it: Aren’t the holidays so much fun, and so bright and happy and exciting?
Well, they used to be.
To me, April isn’t the cruelest month. That honor belongs to December. It’s the month my husband Justin was born. The month our baby boy was due. The month Justin had his first brain surgery to remove what we assumed back then was a benign tumor. It’s a month fraught with memories and stained by a deep sense of dread.
Psychologist Amy Johnson, the author of “Modern Enlightenment: Psychological, Spiritual, and Practical Ideas for a Better Life,” says that you can in fact get through the holidays with minimal mental scarring.
1. Keep your expectations in check. This won’t be the best Christmas ever, but it’s also not going to be the worst day of your life. It’s just another day.
2. It’s OK to be sad. You’re going into the holidays without someone who has always been there. That will trigger memories and you’ll be sad. You have to be prepared for that.
3. It gets easier. You have to separate "clean" pain from "dirty" pain. Clean is the real grieving that comes from someone being gone. Dirty pain is all the ways that we make it worse than it is, by clinging to the story.
It’s my first Christmas as a widow. A word that almost, if you say it quickly enough, sounds like window, only without the airy views or fresh breezes. It was never supposed to be me. Widows are played by aging actresses grasping for an Oscar. But here I am, knee-deep in reluctant holiday cheer, a brightly lit tree taking over the far right corner of our living room. We got it last year, during a haul to Home Depot, and my husband—who was still lucid and mobile back then, could still shower and crack jokes and hail a cab—put it together and then went to the drugstore and picked up what may be the world’s ugliest neon angel to sit atop our plastic sapling.
Justin, my better half, my other half, died of brain cancer in April, a reality that still seems as preposterous and dubious to me as a jolly, fat Santa Claus actually sliding down my nonexistent chimney and wielding a bag of gifts. What used to be three of us—four, actually, if you count my dog who now lives with my brother, after an unfortunate biting incident coupled with my inability to take care of him while raising a baby alone—has been halved into two. It’s just Alex, who’s almost 2, and me. So what are the holidays like for me, for those of us who have lost loved ones—and pardon me for using that trite verb, because the last time I checked, I certainly didn’t lose Justin anywhere. I didn’t forget him at the mall or leave him behind at Rockefeller Center. He died.
The holidays are lonely. So lonely. It’s the same nagging loneliness you feel all the time, but compounded by a season that dictates that all must be cheerful and lively and upbeat. You try to curb that loneliness by reaching out to friends. Only friends have their own families, their own traditions, their own dinners and tree trimmings, and you start to feel like a somewhat pitiable party crasher. But more than anything, I want my son to have a sense of inclusion, to know that he belongs and to never feel like he’s getting scraps or the second-best of anything, and that means sucking it up and pasting a smile on your face and being cheerful.
So you pretend. You buy the really well-reviewed audio-book for your mother in law, the hefty grilling bible for your brother in law, the vintage ring for your cousin, the unwieldy backhoe for your son. You dutifully hang up the quirky, bright ornaments you and your husband collected over the years. In keeping with tradition, or perhaps out of some pathetic need to keep that façade going, you put up not two but three stockings. And you try not to think too much. Because thought is the enemy of blitheness and gaiety.
Two years ago, I was pregnant and due on Christmas Day. It came and went, just another date in the midst of seemingly endless snowstorms. My belly was massive, my discomfort even greater. We spent the evening before with friends at a cozy family gathering, and marked the day with a quiet dinner at a nearby café, and joked that Wolfgang, as my husband used to threaten to name the baby, would never make his long-awaited debut because he was just too comfortable where he was. Justin had rebounded from his surgery and we had celebrated his landmark 40th birthday, so now we were just waiting for that elusive first contraction. I look at photos now and it’s like observing characters in a play I no longer remember writing. I’m rotund, encased in a tight red shirt. Justin is grinning and hugging me, proud and joyous and probably more than a bit terrified. To say I miss him doesn’t begin to sum up what it’s like.
We live in a society where displays of excessive emotion are frowned-upon, unless you’re a “Real Housewife.” Sobbing makes people feel weird and uncomfortable. It’s too grating, too heavy, just too much, plus it might stain that green reindeer sweater. So people muddle through, much like I do. They don’t know what to say, or how to act, or what to do. Do they talk about Justin? Share some long-forgotten but newly-found photos from a year or two ago, and reminisce about the time he jumped into a frozen lake in upstate New York to rescue our drowning dog, who had crashed through the ice? Or is it safer and simpler to just not say a thing?
You don’t want to grate. Because it’s especially during times like these, when enforced cheer is the mandated emotion, that you rely on the kindness of those in your life. It’s hard to be joyous when all you feel is a major, ugly void. It’s like a hangover. No matter how many Advil you pop, you can’t shake that residual nausea in the pit of your belly, and a dull throbbing ache in your head. Justin and I were a unit. And now, we’re not. It’s really as simple as that.
That’s not to say that everything is a shiny shrink-wrapped fraud. There are some authentic, heartfelt moments amidst the plastic wreaths. A friend of mine lost (ah, that word again!) her mother to breast cancer this year, and she’s visibly shaken by not having her there anymore. We had dinner with the kids on Friday and she wrapped her arms around me and sobbed and I rubbed her back and knew precisely how she felt. It’s an emptiness that no amount of eggnog will ever fill.
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