Grieving During the Holidays

The colorful lights, packages wrapped with beautiful bows, Santa’s lap filled with happy children, the music of the season: all these joys spell Christmas.

But what if you are smack in the middle of grief this December? What if some of the joy is colored by sadness?

Over a quarter of a million families will be missing someone this Christmas, due to how COVID has decimated our lives. Numerous other families had to bury Mom or Dad, sister or brother, a best friend or a spouse.

How do we find hope when the holidays offer a raw stab of grief?

Three possibilities float to the surface:

Keep the Traditions. Did Mom make a certain type of pie or a specialty casserole? Bake it yourself and remember what a great cook she was.

Did Dad string the lights on the tree? As you string them alone this Christmas, remember how he made sure they were evenly distributed — how they reflected love throughout the room.

Did the family always meet at Grandma’s house, but now Grandma isn’t there and the house has been sold? Meet where you can and talk about Christmases past. Show pictures to the grandchildren. Keep the memories of Christmas alive.

Each family makes their own traditions. One of my favorites was shopping with my friend, Deb. That event does not happen anymore. Even after three years of grief, I feel the loss so deeply.

But I cannot find hope if I only remember what once was.

Instead, I’ll remember Deb and find a day to shop alone, start with our favorite chai tea and tell her about my purchases. Give the gift I planned for her to a single mom who needs encouragement. Remember the fun of shopping together and toast her with some egg nog.

Fill the Empty Chair. Nothing is more discouraging than that empty chair beside the table. It’s a reminder of loss — a visual of who is missing.

Instead of staring at the emptiness, fill the chair with another person:

  • An international student who cannot fly hundreds of miles to be home for the holidays
  • A single mom who is bereft of her children because it’s his turn to share them with his family
  • A homeless person who longs to feel the warmth of a home and experience a full belly
  • A young parolee who needs to understand how grace means second chances
  • A frontline worker who is too exhausted to cook a meal
  • Anyone you know who might be alone

As we fill the empty chair with another living being, it reminds us life DOES move forward. We don’t have to remain stuck within the grief of Christmas past.

Give Thanks for Memories. We shared many holidays with that special person. We still have some of the gift s/he gave us. Wear that sweater she knitted just for you. Dab on that perfume he gave you. Clasp the necklace or play the CD.

Revel in those precious reminders and give thanks. That person represents a unique place in your journey: spouse, parent, sibling, friend. No one can ever replace her or him.

Share your favorite holiday memories around the table. The stories will help that person seem alive again. When Deb enjoyed her food, she always said, “Uhm, uhm” between bites. I cannot eat guacamole without hearing her soprano gratitude.

Although this holiday may seem especially empty for you and the grief even more fresh — keep the traditions, fill the empty chair and give thanks for the memories.

Then remember your loved one is celebrating Christmas in heaven and probably thinking about you.

©2020 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

Soothe some of your raw grief with a book about hope. Hope Shines is available on Amazon in print, Kindle and Large Print.

Hope Finds Story in an Estate Sale

SaleAs I drove up to the multi-storied house, the “Estate Sale” sign reminded me of my mission. Look for something I could use at work — something that might bring encouragement to the women I coached: a pot of flowers, beautiful cards, a trinket to give away.

What I didn’t expect to find was a story.

I joined the crowd of people who poked through bedrooms, closets and the kitchen — each of us searching for treasures at a reduced price.

Empathy set in as I realized this was a family who had just buried their matriarch. Now they were selling her house and sorting through what she left behind, offering pieces of her life to strangers.

What sort of life did she live? The question hounded me even as I began to discover clues to her story.

In the garage, colorful pots for the cuttings of flowers or plants. The texture of the pots described a woman attracted to pottery rather than spray-painted plastic. A woman who appreciated the genuine.

A stack of books pulled me like a magnet into the intrigue of her life. Most of us can tell our stories by the choices of books we keep on our shelves.

This woman read financial summaries and economic reports. A mathematical mind, detailed, and carefully constructed to pay attention to pi, cosign and greater than.

A pile of books about alternative health. Was she sickened by a disease no one could treat, so she tried to find help beyond the traditional medical community? Did any of the vitamins, acupuncture or colloidal treatments give her a few more years of quality life?

No books on religion. No Bibles. No creative poetry or coffee table books, unless her family had already sequestered those to keep alive memories of Mom and Grandmother.

The basement was filled with Christmas decorations. Obviously a woman who loved the holidays and filled her lavish home with pine wreaths, Scandinavian villages that lit up and over-sized ornaments, sparkling in the dim basement light.

The story of her life became even more clear as I sorted through bedding, crept into closets and fingered vintage textures. This woman knew her own style and didn’t care for polyester cutouts that looked like everyone else.

In the kitchen, more health-conscious books about nutrition, cooking without cholesterol, how to incorporate chicken instead of beef into favorite recipes.

Suddenly a wave of grief as I chose a casserole pan, wondering how many chicken meals she fixed in that particular dish before she finally succumbed to the frailty of her last days.

Before payment at the front parlor check-out, I walked through the house once more, prayed for the grieving family, found a few more treasures and considered how story follows us throughout life.

What kind of story would my life tell, and how was it accented by my stuff? If someone looked through my bookshelves, could they determine I am a student of theology, a creative writer and a woman who loves the colorful textures of the Southwest?

I came away from that estate sale lugging a garden birdhouse with its trailing ivy, a package of Christmas bulbs in my favorite dark purple, the casserole pan and a story that emanated from the treasures of one life.

Hope shines through the stories we live, and our stuff reflects who we are.

©2020 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

For more essays about hope, check out Hope Shines, on Amazon and also available in Large Print.

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