How the holiday season helps me to confront and work through my grief

As seasons change (or perpetually stay the same, if you’re in Los Angeles), we can all sense our daily motions shifting to match the movements of the holidays. Throughout December, a great many people deal with loss on some level and encounter reminders of those who have passed. As we celebrate, the void they leave behind reverberates with difficult questions and we wear hard-to-muster smiles, but I choose, still, to celebrate life.

Seemingly, my entire home town of South El Monte, Los Angeles finds itself grieving the immense and unexpected loss of a schoolmate, friend, and family member, Raul. He tragically passed away earlier this month, and those of us who knew him are still reeling from the initial shock of the death of a young person. Admittedly, I feel that his story is not mine to tell because I was not close enough to him — but as a friend who still feels this new emptiness divulged to me, I must speak of Raulito, somehow. He was “impactful,” one of those magically profound few who maneuver their way into your memories and deserve as many mentions as possible.

I think of the grief work that many of us put off. That neglected work that comes around during this tricky time of year, reminding us of our own mortality.

The writing of this essay could be premature because the news of this loss is still so fresh, but it’s important to get these unexplored feelings down in some tangible form. Then, at least, the work can begin.


To me, Raul was a pure soul who lit up most, if not all, spaces with an exuberance most often reserved for children. I can look back upon my own childhood and find Raulito there, playing his electric guitar when our school’s music teacher snottily taught “only acoustic.” And during class breaks, Raul taught me the beginning of “Seven Nation Army,” though we were often haughtily told “rock is trash” by our instructor. Raulito was rebellious in a silent kind of way, and I will reflect on the subtle life lessons he taught me during our brief moments together.

Given the time of year, I’m thinking about faith. The significance of religious holidays does not faze a seasoned atheist like myself, but if I am in fact wrong about the whole thing, Raul would be the type of person to get into heaven. Last week, I went to his family’s novenario, in which religious Catholic folks pray for nine days (or more; up to their discretion) for the one who has passed. I brought my young son with me, and though my babe cries very seldomly, he began crying towards the end of the prayer section. I could just think of Raul and his moments of protest in music class.

Instead of shushing my son, I let him cry; I let him be himself. I was nervous about how Raul’s family would react to the interruption, but they were overwhelmingly understanding and kind. These lovely humans had raised Raulito in that same manner. They were exhibiting the kind of love I want my own son to have.

Typically, I would shrink away from any Christmas cheer or mentions of heaven and angels. But this year, with Raul’s death so close to the holidays, with impending goodbyes at a funeral mere days before Christmas, the joy and festive tidings bring me a sense of relief.

In December, we can let everyone else embrace the holiday and hold up the good feelings, while those of us in mourning can focus on whatever emotions come up, day by day. Because when people like Raul touch your life, then depart suddenly, you simply smile and reminisce. And perhaps let yourself cry for a real one.

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