For some, the winter holiday season is a glorious time of year: a joyful time to gather with family and friends, to celebrate life and all its endless possibilities. We are grateful for the present and excited for the future. The days and nights are filled with starlight and song!
Others are facing their first holiday season after the loss of a loved one -- to illness, or a tragic accident, or a miscarriage, or... there are too many possibilities. It's a difficult time of year: a sad time to gather with family and friends, struggling to make sense of life and its unpredictable cycle. We are confused in the present and uncertain about the future.
It has been 15 years since my daughter Sara died of cancer at age 26. Even after all that time, as the holiday festivities begin, I find my broken heart still aches when I think of Sara in all her flawed, beautiful being-ness. I miss her beyond words. However, over the years I have found ways to honor her life at Christmas: little rituals and traditions that keep me breathing and functional.
Sara was born on Valentine's Day. On each birthday, her cake was decorated with candy cinnamon hearts. So it seemed fortuitous that on the first Christmas after her passing, I found a red shiny glass heart that I now hang front and centre on our family Christmas Tree in her memory. It makes my heart feel good to see that precious ornament in its place of honor each year. Hearts and Sara go together.
As a young adult, Sara loved to celebrate unexpected challenges and adventures by sipping on a glass of expensive single malt Scotch, and eating thick slices of New York-style cheesecake. So we make sure we have both on hand, to toast her throughout our holiday family gatherings. By speaking her name with love and respect, sharing her favorite foods and drink, and spicing it all up with a little black humor, we make her short life meaningful. Always loved, never forgotten. Family, cheesecake and Sara go together.
I no longer hang Sara's red felt stocking over the fireplace with the others, but I still take it out of its Christmas tissue wrapping, and hold it to my heart. I allow myself to sit for a few quiet moments with it, remembering her excited, blue-eyed grin as she hung it "by the chimney with care, in hopes that St Nicholas soon would soon be there!" Sara believed in the magic of Santa Claus for longer than most. Magic and Sara go together.
We play music and sing Christmas carols throughout the holiday season. As an actor and musical theatre performer, Sara thrived on entertaining people. She lit up in the spotlight. Music, singing and Sara go together.
Sara grew up in a log house. When she was born, a dear friend gave her a patchwork quilt made of deep blue, apple red and snow white squares. That quilt laid across the foot of her bed throughout her childhood, and traveled with her to each new home as a young adult. I have it to this day, and when no one is looking, I wrap it around myself and breathe in the almost-lost scent of her. I allow my aching heart's hot tears to roll down my cheeks unashamedly.
Recently I have discovered that for me, honoring Sara's life means embracing the whole of her existence: her birth, her short life and her early death. And, if I need to speak her name, wrap myself in her memories or sing her favorite tune, I do. I do it by myself or with others who knew and loved her. Good, precious memories and Sara go together.
Every person's grief is unique. How you choose to honor the passing of a loved one is up to you. If I could say one thing to others dealing with loss in the midst of these festive times, it would be this: Give yourself permission to live through the holidays however you need to. Create your own traditions. Take comfort wherever you find it. Remember the good times.
Holidays, heartbreak and happy memories can go together.