I received such an overwhelmingly positive response to my last post that I’ve decided to continue sharing my process with you. So many people commented on my Facebook page about their experiences with grief or how they also struggle with talking about death. I’m honored that something I wrote sparked this dialogue. I think we should keep it up. It’s important to share our stories.
This past week has been surprisingly okay for me. I thought it was going to be a lot more stressful with the miserable month of holidays coming up, but so far, so good (it also helps that I went to acupuncture and was able to exercise almost every day).
That’s not to say it has all been nice and easy. It occurred to me at some point during the week that when I was kid, my family used to put the Christmas tree up on the day after Thanksgiving. At first, this memory felt sudden and overwhelming and I had to take some space to be alone and process it. But the more I thought about it, the warmer and happier I started to feel. I remembered how Dad dug the boxes out of the attic and struggled to recall which piece of fake tree went into which section of the pole (the one year we bought a real tree ended in disaster; my brother, Max, got a million nosebleeds and the cats continually puked up pine needles around the house). The four of us spent way too much time obsessively adjusting each limb so that there weren’t any “bald spots,” or, if we couldn’t manage to get rid of them all, that the “bald spots” were at least facing the back wall. Then, we’d string the lights around, Dad and me on one side, Max on the other, passing them back and forth in circles. Next came the ornaments, the most important part, each one wrapped in plastic or newspaper the year before and fit snugly into a box. Mom cherished them all; she loved unwrapping and rediscovering them. I remember how proud she felt about her Victorian Santa collection, how much she enjoyed hiding the pickle for us to find on Christmas day (a German tradition she read about in one of her magazines), how the little red mailbox reminded her of first meeting Dad, how the Minnie Mouse brought her back to our vacation in Disney World. Something about the ornaments felt different from her other collections of figurines and decorations. They were less about buying and owning things and more about remembering the good parts of her life, passing a tradition onto her children, and delighting in her general love of the holiday. And the tree wasn’t just for store-bought ornaments; she strongly encouraged us to make our own decorations. Together, we painted reindeer and gave them googly eyes, covered stars with glitter, painstakingly cut out strips of green and red construction paper and glued them into a long loop chain. She saved these until they fell apart. We loved everything about our tree day, even the terrible Christmas opera music she played (well, I have to confess I didn’t love that, but I loved the whole atmosphere and the opera carols contributed to it because she loved them so much).
We also loved Christmas shopping together. While I didn’t like shopping as much as she did (she was obscenely obsessed with it), there was something special about buying presents for our family. Picking out what they needed, what they wanted, hiding them in the closet, refusing to let them go near it, giving them clues that were entirely off-base then giggling together over their wrong guesses. It was fun to have our little secrets. And we both so enjoyed watching them open our gifts. I can’t express how difficult it was for me to not give it all away beforehand; maybe part of my enjoyment was pride that I’d actually kept a secret (I was really bad at this as a kid).
Mom always loved Christmas. As I grew older, the holiday became difficult for me for many reasons and now, my feelings about it are mixed because of these reasons and because of what it has come to mean in our consumer-based culture. But the memories of putting the tree up together somehow aren’t tainted by any of this. It’s just a nice family tradition we shared.
I’m learning that positive memories like this can serve as a boost when I’m feeling depressed or overwhelmed by my grief. These little snippets not only keep the deceased alive but also bring comfort to the living. Mom loved her ornaments for a reason. Each one represented a person she knew, an experience she shared. They took her back to those faces and places. It was like her whole life was displayed on a tree, each moment glittering with some special detail for her to enjoy every time she passed by it. My memory of her preserving and treasuring each ornament, each piece of her life, now serves as a sort of ornament for me. Her smile, her reminiscent gaze as she ran her fingertips over each one, is now preserved in my memory.
Do any of you have memories/ornaments that have helped with your grief?