When December Holly Isn't So Jolly

I've always loved Christmas, and when I married Smart Guy and we agreed to raise our children in the Jewish faith, I embraced Hanukkah as well. For nearly 30 years, December has been a month of festivity and fun! I love the season: I love the decorations, the socializing, the music, and all the lights and magic. The last couple of years, however, have been a bit more challenging, and those challenges seem to have piled up in December. The recent suicide of a local transgender boy, who struggled with feelings of isolation and getting help for depression; the sudden deaths by accident or illness, of several people I knew; the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, that have us all looking at terror in alarming new ways; the mud slinging of the current election, that dominates the news; as well as daily issues that sometimes weigh me down-- these all contribute to a general sense of sadness, that has left December feeling less cheery, and grayer than the weather and early sunset dictate. Coming around the holidays and the anniversary of my mother's death, it's been harder, to feel as jolly as I once did over the holidays.

Four years ago in December, I was overwhelmed by my mother's sudden decline from Huntington's Disease, and death, which came on New Year's Eve 2011. That year, December was a blur of Hanukkah and Christmas lights, holiday music, food, celebratory good intentions, and family and good friends offering comfort and love, while I slowly sipped a cocktail of numbness and deep sadness. And after three full months in hospice, I watched my mother die. I was so relieved to see January that year! Not that my head's in the sand -- tragedy and loss happens all year. Whether you experience that loss during the holidays or the middle of any given week or month, grief makes it hard to see the sparkle in life. All of your senses are challenged when you're grieving. The world gets paler. Mom's death would have been hard whenever it happened, but the stress and loss seemed amplified by the festivities around me. In a month drenched with music, lights, and reminders to be cheery, it can feel so much harder to just sit with sad feelings and grieve.

In bed with mom, at Hospice. Christmas 2011

It seems to me that in one breath we are a society that wants to be compassionate. Most of us know enough to show concern or say caring things, when someone we know has lost a loved one. In the the next breath, we're also a society that wants to move through difficult things as quickly as possible. We change our Facebook pictures, we wrap ourselves in shared tragedies, when they happen (Sandy Hook, Paris, San Bernadino), but we want to move on quickly. Many people are uncomfortable around grief and those who are grieving. It's just easier if everyone feels good, if we can concentrate on the positive. I get that. However, bad things happen to people--painful things that are hard to rush through. I work at a hospice, and I'm reminded each week that others are grieving. At the holidays, all of that is amplified, because it's a time that can elicit so many memories, regardless of loss. The holidays are particularly hard at hospice, because it's such a hard time for families to grieve, and then walk out the door to festivities all around.

I'm aware that aging has played a role in this as well. When I was younger, I saw the world and the events that shape it, much less personally. As a young child, I was unaware of the issues that complicated family relationships, and I felt happy to gather with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, each year for Christmas. It was a smorgasbord of festivity and I felt drunk on the love, food, gifts and holiday cheer. Later, I was focused on school, falling in love, and my own babies. Christmas and Hanukkah were filled with magic and mystery for them, and so it was for me. I made latkes at their schools, held Hanukkah parties, and hosted Christmases at our home, to try and recreate some what I felt as a child. I set the bar so high for myself, and as my kids got older, it felt less like magic and more like work.

Since my mother's death and my kids leaving home, December inadvertently brings on a feeling of melancholy for me. I hear the Salvation Army bells, a hallmark of the season; I face the memory laden music that is playing in virtually every business I enter, and I miss my mother and years past. I miss my grandmother, who helped raise me and was my rock. For much of my life, my grandmother was Christmas. The smell of a Christmas tree, the lights and ornaments, chocolate Santas-- all of it instantly brings memories of the family I grew up with. As I ready for the holidays in my own home, I can't help but remember the Christmases we shared through the years, something that is bittersweet. My kids are grown. My daughter lives 7,000 miles away, with my only grandchild, and my boys come home but have busy lives. When the entire month of December is about being with family, feeling good, and celebrating-- it's hard to feel ok experiencing some melancholy or sadness, and not feeling guilty that everyone around you wants to sing Have A Holly Jolly Christmas (insert any cheer themed holiday song).


It's been four years since my mother's death. The finality of losing our parents, however, or the people who are very important to us, can be really hard to accept and fully integrate. It goes far beyond the intellectual knowledge that someone we love is gone; it's a visceral experience. Our parents represent such a tangible tie to who we are, where we come from, that losing them shakes places within ourselves, that few other losses shake. What the brain knows is true-- they are gone, the heart fights to reject. It's hard to rectify my memories of my mother when she was healthy, before Huntington's Disease, with who she became. It's hard to untangle the mess of wishes I still harbor that my mother, grandmother, aunt and sister, could have lived out their "fair ending" and been spared this disease. As much as I've grieved the deaths they had, my brain can't help but slip back into a time when I simply wished none of them was sick. Watching my sister suffer, that wish is triggered over and over.


Despite this struggle, I still see the wonder in the December holiday season, and there are things I do to turn around the blues. Even if I don't put money in every Salvation Army red bucket I see, I make an effort to smile at the person who is good enough to stand there for hours and ring that bell. I thank them for their time. I let someone go ahead of me in line, because they have two items and my cart is full. I take heart in the amazing folks who walk into stores and pay off a stranger's layaway bill -- making the holidays that much more sparkly for a family they don't know, because that family now knows that others really do care. Every year I stop and shop at one of the Christmas Angel trees, which are all over this time of year. There is something so wonderful each year, in imaging some child I've never met, finding the gift I carefully picked out for them. For years, I brought my own kids to pick those angels, and we knew that on Christmas a child we didn't know was feeling happy to have something they wished for. I drive down certain streets, to look at the lights; I invite friends over and celebrate.

In December many of the things I've compartmentalized and (mostly) moved on from, are stirred. My mother, my grandmother, all of the people I loved who are gone, come back to me during the holidays. It's unavoidable. I find myself trying to figure out how to reformat it all, how to make December feel jolly again. I work to build happy, new memories with my own children and friends, accepting that I miss those who are gone. As my kids go out and create their own families, as we continue to share new experiences in December, there will be new holiday memories to embrace and add to those reserved for loved ones who are gone. Time passes and wounds soften. That knowledge is what sustains me, so that when I find myself a little teary with holiday music, or the beautiful lights, I remind myself that it's ok; life goes on, and there is still magic to be had.

What are your favorite holiday traditions? What do they remind you of and who have you shared them with? Are you grieving, and do the holidays make that harder or easier? Share your thoughts in the comments; I love to hear from readers.
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