“The absence of a loved one is noted and highlighted by what is supposed to be a time of celebration.” ~ psychologist Dr. Velleda Ceccoli
After my blog post last week I received a couple of emails asking me how I’ve dealt with the holidays.
The short answer is I make sure to have a plan. I learned early on the only way to get through the difficult days like Christmas, the boys birthdays, or the accident day is to have a plan. It doesn’t matter what the plan is. It doesn’t matter if the plan is actually followed. But having a plan is an absolute necessity. I learned this the hard way.
The first Thanksgiving without the boys was terrible. I didn’t bother to have a plan because I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Thanksgiving was never that exciting of a holiday for me, so I didn’t think it would be hard without the boys. However, as a friend reminded me, Thanksgiving is a tradition. It turned out to be an incredibly difficult day. Last year, the plan I had to get through Thanksgiving, wasn’t a very good plan. The holiday was so bad last year that I’m really dreading Thanksgiving this year.
The purpose behind having a plan is to deal with the dread leading up to the actual day. When you know a difficult day is coming all you can think about is how you are going to survive that day. Questions like, “How am I going to get through that day? What should I do?” occupy your mind. These days, the holidays, birthdays and memorial days are hard because they shout that the boys are no longer here. Birthdays are no longer about celebrating becoming a year older, they are about remembering. The accident day is a reminder that my life shattered in one brief second. And the holidays . . . . well the holidays are not nearly as much fun without the boys to share them with.
Christmas has been the holiday I’ve obsessed over the most. The first Christmas without the boys had me so panicked I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone in my home. No kids to pull me out of bed before I was awake, no excitement over presents, no Christmas mess to clean up and no playing with new toys. I just couldn’t handle the emptiness of it. So I did the only thing I could think of, I ran away.
I went to Hawaii. I can still remember the smell that hung in the air when I walked out of the airport. The whole island smelled like perfume. Palm trees, blue skies, and perfect temperatures made it hard to believe it was Christmas time. There were not many decorations around and everything was open on Christmas day. If you want to avoid Christmas, Hawaii is the place to go.
The second Christmas after the accident caused me almost as much angst as that first year. I wanted to avoid Christmas again. But I could not afford the trip to Hawaii, nor did I want to spend the holiday alone again. So I talked my parents and my sister’s family into renting a cabin in the woods. My parents found a house for us to rent up near Mt. Hood. I was excited about this idea because, being closer to the mountain we had a better chance of having snow for Christmas. Living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley snow is pretty rare, especially for Christmas.
It turned out to be a wonderful Christmas. We woke up Christmas morning to snow gently falling from the sky. It did not stop snowing until 4pm. I had not had a white Christmas like that since I was a child living in Minnesota. I felt like it was a gift from God. It was like God was telling this hurting family hiding in the woods how much he loved them.
Last year was the first year I didn’t feel the need to run away. Maybe enough time had passed, maybe it was because I had moved and was no longer in the home where I’d raised my boys. Whatever the reason last year was the first year I stayed home for Christmas. It was a nice Christmas, with my family, that turned into a spontaneous slumber party at my parent’s house.
I still have not decorated for Christmas. My sister asked me if I was going to decorate this year. I said “No”.
“Not even a little bit?” she asked
“No, not yet” I replied
The thought of opening all my Christmas boxes and seeing the boy’s special ornaments, their homemade ornaments or the Christmas stockings I spend a year cross-stitching for them is too painful. Someday I will be able to open the boxes of Christmas decorations and fill my house with holiday decorations and memories. But right now I just can’t do it.
For me the holidays are still about surviving them. I’ve learned that each holiday is different and what I need to do to get through them is different.
So I make a plan. The plan can be as simple as going to a movie, or as big as going on a vacation. Playing games with family, going shopping, hanging out with friends are all good ways to get through a holiday. The key is to have a way to get through the day so the grief doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s not avoiding the grief but finding a way to cope on one of the hardest days of the year.
Sometimes having an exit strategy is necessary. If the original plan is failing, having something to fall back on is key to salvaging the day. This is the first year I have made an exit strategy. I’m dreading the holidays so much; I feel the need for a backup plan. I may take myself to the movies, or go home and watch a new movie I purchased just for this reason. Though I am hoping to not need my backup plan, I’m glad I know that I have a way to survive the day if my original plan fails again.
I’ve learned that during the holidays I can only worry about what is going to help me survive the best. Someday I will have joy in the holidays again. But for now I hold my breath until it’s over.