The winter holidays have begun. I can’t help but think of those who’ve lost someone dear to them during the year and are now facing the first Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Kwanzaa or Saturnalia without them. This can be a sad time, but it’s not all sad. Here’s what I mean:
All kinds of people around you are purposely creating light in the darkness. Whether weekly Advent candles, the day by day lighting of the Menorah or twinkling lights stapled to the eaves of the house across the street, where there is darkness there is also light. Look closer. Behind the lights live legends, lore and litany to brace the soul.
Breathe in. Does your nose detect traces of evergreens, cinnamon, peppermint, bayberry? The burst of popped pitch from the fireplace? The first sharp scent of snow? It’s all still here, waiting for you.
The holiday foods you love are everywhere- -gingerbread cookies, old fashioned fudge, that special meatball recipe your Cousin Emma used to bring to the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Grandma Mary’s cranberry salad, lovingly and laboriously made with an old-fashioned, counter-mounted grinder that she also used to make her hallmark dish, Ham Croquettes with Mustard Sauce. If Cousin Emma and Grandma Mary are no longer here on Earth, their recipes are surely in someone’s file.
Dear ones are still here with you. The wounds of loss can turn you inward, or you can reach out to others who are also feeling an empty place inside. The holidays, with their repetitions and traditions, grow bittersweet for all of us over time.
Be watchful: you may find humor inserting itself into your loss. The year my dad died we didn’t know how we’d make it through Christmas, especially because his birthday was on Christmas Eve. Family, traditions, a holiday with a double meaning encroached on my good spirits. How could it not? To mark the first birthday without Dad, my sister and I orchestrated a ceremony, based on the things that reminded us of him, particularly at Christmas time. Here’s how it went:
Dad attended both WSU and UW, rival colleges in Washington State. My sister graduated from WSU; I graduated from UW. Every Christmas we indulged in a spirited sibling rivalry, a contest to see who could find the tackiest team shirt for Dad. My top achievement was a gaudy garment touting “Hotdogs, Football, Tequila, Huskies.” On December 24, 1994, we convened at Dad’s grave at Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Townsend, WA. Mom had given us our pick of Dad’s tacky team shirt collection for vestments. We’d each brought a team pennant on a stick to plant at the grave and brought special ceremonial foods- -two of Dad’s favorites, coconut macaroons and a fifth of Harveys Bristol Cream.
Teary eyed, we sang our college “fight” songs, nibbled the macaroons and choked on a burning swig of sherry. We were poised to launch into full-scale sobbing when a visitor joined us, a hugely pregnant cat who lived on the cemetery grounds. A rare bit of December sun had warmed the concrete slab atop Dad and Grandpa Abraham’s resting place. The cat flopped down on the slab and rolled in a manner so luxuriant and self-indulgent I’ve never seen another cat match it. We’d never had a family cat because Dad was poisonously allergic to them. As a child, I’d threatened to get a big cat and put it on his head one time when I was angry at him. His response to this venom was uncontrolled laughter, and that’s what the pregnant cat did to us mourners, too. Definitely a sign from beyond: lighten up! It’s not all sad.
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