I’m always humbled when people find my article about missing my mom online and comment and share their grief stories.
Our grief stories are different but there is a part of us seeking to know if someone else “gets it” and understands how our heart aches in such a way that you only know if you’ve experienced it.
The holidays are especially hard because many of us are holding two truths at the same time.
The holidays are bittersweet, filled with moments of joy and sadness, especially if you’re missing someone at your table this year.
You may be missing a loved one, whether by physical death or the death of the relationship as it once was…or never was.
The grief and emotions can hit at random times, sometimes even at times when you’re supposed to be happy.
Grieving Moments Not Shared In New Stages of Life
There is grief over mourning the memories of what was AND grief thinking about the memories that won’t be shared.
Regret over words or actions taken… and regret over words not said and actions not taken that also adds another layer to process over time.
The holidays are an annual reminder of seasons and stages in life that naturally stir up reflection.
Parts of me feel like I should be farther along by now, but I’ve come to realize that I’m still working through stuff as I enter different stages of life.
Feeling A Little Lost in Adulthood
I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was only 26 years old…that’s only 5 years older than my oldest child now.
No wonder I’ve felt a little lost into adulthood.
One of the things that I lost was having the one person in the world who had a deeper empathy for my situation…in whatever stage of life I was in.
I remember my mom always noticed when I had too much on my plate and cared in a way that only a mom can.
She understood the work and the stress I had behind the scenes from working, the emotional and physical toll of big moves out of state, taking care of a newborn, supporting my husband through a career change, etc.
The bittersweet now is that I’ve been reciprocating the empathy back to her as I go through new stages of life…only I can’t express it directly to her.
I have a greater understanding and appreciation of everything she did for me throughout my childhood and early adulthood as I walk in her footsteps.
I see things with a different lens looking back now that I couldn’t have seen with the level of understanding and experience then.
What’s hard is that I only had her footsteps to follow until I was 26.
I’ve had so many milestones up and down that I haven’t been able to share with her, ask her for advice, get guidance for what’s coming up next, or just have someone with empathy in my corner, the way that only a mom can since she passed.
She lived to be 57 and the older I get, the more I think about what challenges she had to face at different stages of adulthood.
I think about her passions, her unfulfilled dreams, her fears, her childhood, her stress as a caretaker for my special needs brother and all of my grandparents during their cancer, what brought her joy in life, the emotions of her being a parent and grandparent, the delicate impact of her mastectomy, and how alone it must have felt when she knew she was facing her death.
That’s not to say that my dad hasn’t been a great support, he just hasn’t experienced life through the lens and challenges of being female.
Reflecting on Holiday Traditions
I especially think of my mom around the holidays because of the traditions we used to have together.
She and I would drag out all of the decorations from the attic, which was a feat in itself.
I think of her singing along to Karen Carpenter’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” every time that I hear it on the radio.
She had a “pretty Christmas tree” in the living room upstairs and a Christmas tree with all of the ornaments I loved in the family room of our finished basement, where we would entertain and exchange presents.
Every year, she would buy me a new ornament for when I got married so that I would have ornaments for my Christmas tree. I’ve continued her ornament tradition with my kids too.
We would make cookies and wrap gifts together. She would host holiday parties and even did a few holiday craft shows.
Processing the Pain Alone
I don’t have a living sibling which makes me feel more alone as I try to process all of my feelings as the years pass. My older brother/ only sibling was non-verbal with severe cerebral palsy and passed away when I was in middle school.
I don’t have any daughters to share holiday traditions with the same sentiment. It’s just different with boys.
The Weight of the Holidays
I feel the weight and tension each holiday. I wrestle through a wave of emotions. I try to get as much done as possible when I have energy and can gain momentum when I can.
The reality is that my boys don’t notice the level of detail the way that a girl appreciates it anyway.
I also recognize when I’m emotionally spent and just don’t want to. Somber moments tend to creep in during times that are supposed to be filled with joy.
I’m fortunate that I had a good relationship with my mom to mourn. It was more complex during my teenage years and I hate that I didn’t get to enjoy the sweet spot of friendship very long with her into adulthood.
I also recognize that I’ve had longer with my mom than others in this club of sorts.
If you’re reading this you’re most likely in the club of losing a loved one too and I’m sorry that you know that pain, no matter what age you were.
A Gift of Empathy For Others
One of the gifts of grief is that it helps you have an awareness and empathy for others around the holidays who are also going through the pain of loss.
You’re no longer naive to believing that life is infinite once you’ve experienced how delicate and finite it is.
You know and recognize that others who’ve lost loved ones are dealing with a roller coaster of emotions during the holidays too.
Sometimes it’s just nice to have another person recognize and acknowledge the pain of the bittersweet.
It’s also nice to know that someone recognizes that you may need a moment to slip out of the room at a holiday gathering to regroup without any unnecessary drama or gossip about your exit or return.
Everyone grieves differently and just because one person appears to have moved on in social settings… doesn’t mean they have or that others will be at the same stage at the same pace.
Most of my tears are shed when I’m alone.
Who is Missing From Your Table?
The holidays are hard especially if you’re missing someone at your table who was once there.
We know that death will eventually happen to us and our loved ones and yet it seems to surprise us every time.
The longer we are fortunate to live, the more loved ones we have who are missing at the table.
It’s easier to try to ignore it and never think about it and hope that we’ll never have to experience it.
The reality is that we will. No one in the history of mankind has ever escaped it.
Some deaths also come unexpectantly and tragically earlier than others. Those are especially hard to wrestle with because we know that they were robbed of even more time.
Honoring the Memories
I’ve recently found looking at old photos from around the holidays to be really therapeutic.
It stirs up emotions and questions I wish I asked when I had the chance when my mom and grandparents were alive.
One of my new projects to honor their legacy is to have a display with framed old photos from the holidays that we can look forward to viewing each year.
Pictures of my kids with Santa, pictures of my husband and I as kids at Christmas, old photos with our grandparents and extended relatives at family gatherings, etc.
I heard someone on the radio say that they buy an ornament for their loved one who passed each year as another way to remember and honor them.
It’s another way to acknowledge their life and your grief.
It could be anything that reminds you of them.
Moving Forward in Our Grief
It’s okay to acknowledge that parts of us are still not ok.
There are tender parts of our souls that can still be triggered without any warning, even many years later.
It can still feel like we’re walking through life with missing pieces. Many of us may still feel like we have parts of us that still feel like a kid, even as an adult.
We can try our best to be more intentional about how we make memories with friends and family and try to honor the memories of those we’ve lost.
We can choose to make the most of this finite life by living and loving to the fullest.