When my boys were babies, I quickly realized how true the saying was that things never get easier, the difficulty just shifts. For example, there will come a day when your newborn baby finally sleeps through the night. (Brand new moms and dads to screaming infants: I assure this is the truth, hang in there!) But longer periods of sleep will likely coincide with the time that the now non-screaming baby begins crawling all over the house, shoving every last thing they can get their chubby little hands on in their mouth. When the “what are you chewing on?!” phase subsides, it’s replaced with a toddler that wants to ask “why?” thirty thousand times in a twenty five minute span – especially when you are on the phone or in the bathroom. The “why” phase eases off, just in time for you to learn the joys of 5 year old who has become proficient at the eyeball roll accompanied by an audible, disgusted sigh – and it will drive you absolutely bonkers.
And so it goes, one challenging season morphing into the next, for at least a solid 18 years.
Currently, my wildly self-sufficient, sleeping through the night, not choking on pennies or un-cut grapes (but still eye rolling and sighing) first born is now a teenager, and I’m more unsure of this parenting thing than ever before. But we trudge on, hopefully with more time spent laughing and thriving rather than simply trying to survive, wondering when this will get easier.
I’ve learned that grief works the same way. It never gets easier – the difficulty just shifts.
It’s December, the most magical time of the year. I was raised in a home that was one elf-manned toy assembly line short of being the North Pole itself. As such, I’ve grown into an adult who will unabashedly don my ugly Christmas sweater the second the kids come home from Trick or Treating. There is zero shame in my Christmas joy game.
My father would have always been the first to tell you how much my mother adores Christmas. And it’s true: we regularly buy her pieces for her Christmas village as birthday gifts – in July. She keeps the Christmas music station cued on her XM radio 365 days a year. But my father’s love for Christmas was not simply a cause and effect of marrying our own version of Mrs. Claus. No, Dad genuinely loved Christmas too.
You could see it in the way he would pretend putting the lights on the Christmas tree every year was a monumental pain in the ass. He’d grumble – and quote his beloved Bob Rivers “12 Pains of Christmas” song (“rigging up the lights!”) – with the biggest twinkle in his eye.
You could see my father’s love for Christmas in the way he would carefully hang up his helicopter ornament, and tell the story of how it came from Macy’s in New York when he was a little boy. Or the turkey – so old and weathered the glass was paper thin – that belonged to his mother. None of the kids were allowed to touch those ornaments, and watching how carefully and meticulously my Dad placed them on the tree was all the explanation we ever needed as to why they were off limits.
You could see my father’s absolute JOY for the season in the way he would cheerfully and loudly laugh as he hung his Family Guy naked Peter Griffin angel ornament (yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like) on the tree, calling it “St. Peter”, despite my moms disgusted sighs that this blasphemy was hanging on her tree. Yet she always let him hang it.
Every year Dad would bring home mom the biggest, most beautiful Poinsettia plant he could find. But it was never the first one he saw. No, he would actually hold out on buying the plant until he found one worthy of adorning our family dinner table.
Our Christmas traditions were – and are – steadfast. When I was younger, Christmas Eve almost always involved candle light church service in our tiny Vermont church. We weren’t particularly religious, but this was the night the entire town came out to be together, and the service was always stunningly beautiful. Yes, even including the year the donkey in the live Nativity performance pooped in the middle of the aisle, and the entire congregation had to stifle laughter.
On the drive home from church, I’d ask Dad to tell me about the Star of Bethlehem, and I’d stare out the window trying with all of my might to see it.
We’d get home and commence the traditional dinner of hors d’oeuvres (horsey durvsies, as my Dad jokingly called them). Mom’s dill dip in a bread bowl was a must – you better get some before it’s gone. My youngest sister and I would get to open ONE gift each, which only intensified the excitement for the next day. And we’d listen to all of our favorite Christmas albums (first on record, then on tape, and eventually transitioning to CD), including the Time Life Treasury of Christmas, The Carpenters, Kenny Rogers, Peter, Paul, & Mary , and let us not forget Barry Mannilow (Mom LOVES her Barry Mannilow).
Eventually, my little sister and I would declare that we were too excited to sleep, BUT knew that Santa would come sooner if we’d go to bed. And off we’d go.
(It should be noted that the “I’m too excited but if I go to bed now, Christmas will happen sooner” still occurs to this day, and my youngest sister is 35 years old.)
I’d lay in bed listening to the Christmas music still playing, and I’d be filled with so much wonder, magic, and excitement. I remember being a little girl and actually crying to myself in my bed at night on Christmas Eve, because as excited as I was for Santa to come, I didn’t want the season to end.
Christmas morning, my little sister and I would wake up excited and watch the clock for the pre-determined time we were “allowed” to get out of bed. It was usually 5 am – my parents were troopers. We’d run to Mom & Dad’s room, where as a family we’d open our stockings together in their bed. Then we’d head to the living room and open presents while mom burned some Pillsbury cinnamon rolls (burning them also turned into a beloved tradition, whether she meant to do it or not).
Every year, Dad would sit in his recliner on Christmas morning, exhausted and disheveled from working hectic retail management Christmas hours all month. His hair would be frazzled, he’s have his trusty coffee in hand, and without fail, the biggest smile on his face as he watched all of his girls unwrap their gifts.
We were not, by any means, a wealthy family growing up. My parents sacrificed a lot for us, working long hours and sometimes even multiple jobs in order to simply make ends meet. As such, there were more years than I can count that my parents would tell my sister and I that “things are tight this year, don’t expect a ton under the tree”. Yet every year, without fail, we would wake up Christmas morning and it would look like Santa Claus’ sleigh exploded under our tree. I remember years where gifts covered nearly the entire living room floor. And while I’ve grown up to be more of an “experiences over stuff” minimalist of sorts, I still always cherish the excitement of those mornings.
Dad died in October of 2018. The start of the Holiday season. Before the wounds of our loss even began to heal, my mom, sisters, and I were slapped almost immediately with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and my parents anniversary…all without Dad. People warned me that the “firsts” would always be hard, and they definitely were. Yet in retrospect, I was still numb to the loss at the time. His death was still surreal. We were simply surviving.
But here’s the thing: no one talks about how hard the “seconds” are.
This year I find myself daily, and silently, vacillating between joy and grief. It has been 426 days since Dad died. 426 days for me to come to terms with the idea that he’s gone. And the majority of the time, I am at peace with this major loss. My Dad was a good man, a good father, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without him (above and beyond the concept that I literally wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him). Most days I am thankful for the time I did spend with him, rather than grieving for the years I have to now spend without him.
So needless to say, it surprised me how hard grief suddenly infiltrated itself back into my soul this Christmas season.
There is a huge part of me that knows how much my Dad loved the Holidays, and how he would want nothing more than for me – for us – to not be sad this time of year. Quite the opposite, actually.
I know Dad would want me to be as ridiculously over the top with Christmas for my boys, just as he and Mom were for us growing up. I know this, and so I sing Andy William’s “Happy Holidays” at the top of my lungs in the car when driving my kids to school, thoroughly embarrassing the 13 year old.
I know that Dad would want us to keep Christmas the happy seasons it’s always been for Mom. I know this, and so I go on eBay, win, and send her a collectors Santa figurine that she wanted, just because I know it will put a smile on her face – and it’s something Dad would have done.
I know that Dad would want me to continue to be the excited, silly self I’ve always been, and that he’s always loved. I know this, and so I put my Christmas Lights up long before Thanksgiving, and laugh at my children and husband who try to convince me it’s far too early to decorate.
Oh, and I eat far too many batches of Christmas Oyster crackers, far too early in the season, and know Dad would be proud…even though my pants are starting to get snug.
But then sometimes, in the midst of doing what I know he would love, a memory or a song lyric will hit me like knife to the gut.
Through the years we all will be together, If the fates allow …
I’ll slam the button on the car radio as quickly as possible and change it to one of the two stations I know haven’t started playing Christmas music yet. I’m a notorious channel surfer, rarely listening to an entire song, so my family won’t think twice about these actions. And I’ll quietly choke back tears so no one notices.
Hell, as I write this post, tears are streaming down my face, and I’m facing my computer hoping no one notices.
Because the weird thing about grief is that while I’m convinced it never leaves you, it quickly leaves the minds of everyone else. It’s not their fault, of course. People die every single minute of every single day, it would be absolutely exhausting to keep track of who is mourning at any given moment. And that in and of itself, is such an isolating feeling. It hurts to hurt. You don’t want it…but here you are.
Everyone will tell you that there is no “timeline” for you to “get over” a loss. And it’s true, there isn’t. Yet the longer you go between feelings of grief, the more those feelings tear you apart when they do pop up. And as time passes, as it never ceases to do, there comes a point where you start to feel a bit silly, dramatic even, because Nat King Cole’s voice stirs up feelings you wished didn’t still sting so badly. But still, you don’t want to bother anyone else with those feelings. Because this isn’t a “first”. This isn’t when everyone expects you to have a broken heart. We’re long past that.
Seconds are hard.
During “firsts” we grieve the big picture: the stark reality of a life that is gone. There’s a numb disconnect that happens, likely survival mode.
During the “seconds”, it seems, we grieve the memories, and traditions, and all of the tiny details surrounding a person that will never, ever be again. We mourn the things we didn’t get to do, the things we never got to say. The finality of it all is so incredibly heavy.
Grief never gets easier, the difficulty just shifts.
I don’t really have a point to this post. But writing has always been wildly therapeutic for me, and this post has been bubbling under the surface of my heart and mind since the day 104.9 BOB FM switched over the 24/7 Christmas music. And so I share these words, hoping they will bring my heart a little relief…and maybe a little solidarity to anyone else who might also be facing a “second”.
A quote that I’ve repeated in my head near daily for the last 426 days, a quote that has truly helped me feel what I need to feel and begin (and continue) to heal, is:
Be the things you loved the most about the people that are gone.
I try to live by that quote every single day. And so on this “second” Christmas, I allow myself to feel my grief, to sit with my grief, and refuse to run away from the things that are causing the pain, even though that would be the easiest thing to do. Because ultimately the joy of memories of the past and of memories yet to be made are so much greater than the grief will ever be.
Love always wins.
I love the Christmas season so much, largely because my Dad loved the Christmas season so much. I know he’d never want it any other way.
Now excuse me while I go dig out my “Is it Christmas Yeti?” socks and dance around the house to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. I know Dad would be proud.