Surviving the holidays

I was recently asked, ‘How do you survive the holidays?’

Survive them… I didn’t think I was. I thought.

Although I wanted to say this, I quickly realized this was not the answer this mother – who had buried her oldest son in June of this year — was looking for. So I have waited and contemplated this question for more than a week, because I realized we are coming up on the third holiday season with my first born in heaven. That’s him… standing in the photo below.

I don’t have solid 100 percent, sure-fire answer of success for the holidays. All I have is examples.


My son, the goofball in the white shirt in this photo, was taken from the family in early September of 2010. The first holiday we were forced to experience without him was Halloween. This was one of his favorite holidays, so it was a struggle for me.

I let my daughters try to cheer me up. Looking back, I was, we all were, depressed, and after all — it had only been 5 weeks since the funeral and depression was natural. The girls brought out my favorite decoration, a 3-D jack-o-lantern with many little lights among the orange plastic. My smile was negligible. My defensive sarcasm was high.

“Silly me, I purchased a casket just a couple of weeks ago … and I just let them burn it. I should have planned that better and waited,” I said flatly staring into my cup of coffee one morning. “We’ve all been talking about making a casket, puttin’ it the front yard. Ethan could have been propped up and scared kids, just like we all had planned!” I said to my girls. Okay, I guess the wide-eyed open-mouthed silence I got upon looking up told me… that wasn’t so funny.

Thanksgiving was next. The husband, the girls and I stayed home. I cooked. It was a very low-key weekend as sadness permeated the house. We usually began putting up our elaborate Christmas light display Thanksgiving weekend, if the weather was decent. It was in 2010, but no lights went up. The husband was too sad. We all were too sad.

Moping around became the norm for all of us.

Ethan’s sisters and our exchange student must have gotten tired of seeing us this way, because, to my surprise, they strung lights and set up the blow-up lawn ornaments one crisp December afternoon. As I drove up to the house, greeted by the holiday decorations I began to smile.

“What are you doing?” I asked timidly adding, “I thought we weren’t putting those up this year.”

“We wanted to surprise dad. We know how much he loves Christmas,” my oldest daughter said. It was then I admitted to myself that there could still be joy for us. Maybe.

That weekend I bit the bullet. It is time to stop being such a stick in the mud. Okay, so convincing myself to decorate inside the house was difficult, but if my girls could do it, I needed to join in, show them life does not end. The pep talk I was having with myself was repetitive, often falling on deaf ears.

I started with moving the furniture around in the living room, a usual occurrence in our house with each holiday or change of the weather. This took much longer than usual the winter of 2010. The husband escaped to work in his wood shop. The girls helped, when I would let them. They checked on me often. It’s not like the projection style TV or the couches were heavy. The burden lay in the tears that blurred my vision and stung my eyes.

You see, Ethan used to help me move the furniture around. We used to love sharing the chore because it was always the pre-curser to putting up the Christmas tree. Something our family loved to do together.

Moving the furniture and vacuuming took hours this time. I was forced to take breaks due to uncontrolled sobbing and near hyperventilation. But cry through it all I did.

The next day I came home to my girls decorating the Christmas tree. With tears in my eyes I picked up Ethan’s Christmas stocking. I held it tight to my chest, not wanting to let it go. It was then that my husband walked in. Everyone had tears running down their face as dad grabbed the hammer and 5 nails. We put the stockings up on the wall, beside the Christmas tree just like we had before. I will admit, it took me a few extra minutes to relinquish the handmade stocking Ethan’s grandmother had made for him, but with shaking hands I hung it on the wall.

We’ve stopped putting up the tree now. I am down to one daughter left in the house at Christmas. No husband – that relationship finally withered away. And one daughter lives out of state now. But the dog does not seem to notice the house is devoid of a tree, so I anticipate garland on the fireplace mantle will be enough this year, along with the children’s stockings.

I don’t have solid plans for the holiday season this year. It is a constant evolution of actions and traditions. Sometimes the sadness of even planning to make new memories stalls this momma and Ethan’s sisters. But, I put on a game face now. I struggle through the cooking. Sometimes the tears blur the receipts and so I just stop. I allow the tears to come.

I have a loving and understanding set of family and friends that I interact with. They wait my tears out. They hug me, sometimes. But we allow the tears and redirect the sadness to happy thoughts of funny things Ethan used to do. It helps a little.

Each one of us grieves in a different way. Allow that. It’s a long process… this thing called healing.

Celebrate in a manner and at a level that you are comfortable with. And if it becomes too much, retreat, regroup. Say that loved one’s name out loud. Tell them you miss them. Only rejoin the celebration of life if you are up to it.

Remember there will be more holidays and there will be more minutes that will build into hours, when the holiday will not be so painful to endure.