The Christmas following our losses was among the most non-traditional and hollow ever known to our family.  The day my dad died our son was chosen to go shopping with a cop (a local program for kids facing a hard time).  Our son had not yet been made aware of my dads death.  When the checkout folks asked him if “these presents were going under his tree?” he had to tell them we didn’t have a tree.  They rushed to find him an artificial tree to take home.  We set it up for him and did put under it a few presents.  This was the first of Christmas traditions shattered by our loss.  

Our family always loved to go to the woods and find a tree to cut and bring home.  We have not returned to that tradition…One year, I was so motivated to get the tree I begged that we go right now to find the tree.  The snow was falling so heavily that by the time we arrived to our usual tree-hunting spot it was dark.  I pushed us on…in the moment it was not as funny as it is now.  The wind was whipping and the snow was up to our waists.  Our son was smart and brought his snowshoes.  We, as parents, did not.  Marley was in a pack on my back and screaming the whole time!  We couldn’t see so the tree we picked was of the closest to the truck, saddest and most pathetic in the forest.  My husband nearly ripped it out of the ground so that we could (please God) just get back in the truck and go home.  

When we set up our sad little tree I thought there was no way to possibly make this a Christmas tree as the weight of tinsel seemed to be too heavy for its thin branches.  I had the nerve to ask to please go out and try again.  HA!  My husband laughed and told us “no way”.  We bought “fairy lights” and made do…Naturally, this has become my favorite tree of all trees and I long for a problem as simple as thin branches.  Ah, perspective.  

Our family has slowly edged toward an integrated Christmas. I would probably be more inclined to never again celebrate the holiday or expose myself to intact families as they share in holiday cheer.  However, I have living children who need more from me than total denial of this major holiday.  I remember watching some renovation show where the cabin a family lived in had started to crumble around them.  The reason, they shared, what that a child had been lost and mom wouldn’t get out of bed for three years.  I use this as my measurement, at times, for what I don’t want…what I will fight to avoid.  Believe me, I understand this mom and her grief process and have days/weeks when bed feels like the only thing I can do…and then I make a different choice and for me it is the better choice.  

So, for Christmas this year I will choose to be present in the joy of our living children.  I will also choose to be present in the sorrow of my missing child and father.  I will work to integrate the two and I acknowledge the work it takes to do both simultaneously.

Here are a few ways we integrate our grief into our Christmas: 

We adopted a 6 year old girl to buy her gifts.  It was searingly painful to shop for a girl I wish was my own.  However, it felt right to buy gifts for a child who would likely want the same gifts for which Marley would long.  I realize that adopting a child for the holiday is not within reach for all- but I encourage grievers to think of ways to connect with a similar person to their lost loved one, only in time though.  This new tradition is only two years old for me and wouldn’t have been helpful a moment sooner. 

Gifts are marked “To: Dad   From: Marley”.  Like I said in my video, just saying or writing her name feels so right and is balm for my spirit.  

We talk about her. We talk about the grief. We share the difficulty we face in missing Marley and my dad, especially this time of year. We hope that our front-facing approach with our son, especially, will give him the freedom to grieve too. We aim to cultivate a shared grief experience, even in our own family. Even in our family unit it takes intention to build a shared grief experience.

Express gratitude for those who include Marley in their Christmas cards or greetings.  Last year we received 2 cards which included Marley.  I was SO grateful and shared with them my gratitude for including her in their thoughts and Christmas wishes.

Be kind to yourself, do only what is necessary and forgive those around you for the ridiculous things they say to you, for they know not how they sound.

Peace be with you all.

Sarah