Dealing With Grief During The Holidays
“Your dad looks like Santa Claus,” a friend of mine whispered to me as he looked over at my dad in the next room. I was in fifth grade with a boy a grade younger than myself. We had made a stop at my parent’s office with my mom who was taking care of us that afternoon. My dad was a lawyer and my mom was one of his secretaries in a small two room office he rented. After my friend’s comment, my jaw dropped. The thought had never occurred to me. At first I wondered if he meant it as an insult, but I think he just meant it as an honest observation.
My dad was a big, tall man with a red-toned face because of his Irish background. He had what he liked to call “Einstein hair,” only it was an even thicker, fluffy bunch of white hair atop his head than that of the genius. With a full white beard with only bits of gray speckled in and a belly that could jiggle like a bowl full of jelly, he did look like the typical image of Santa Claus.
My Santa Claus has since gone, but I am left with good memories of a kind, funny man to warm my heart this Christmas. He is the man who taught me about movies and fostered in me a love of writing. Although he was a lawyer by craft, he also wrote a few screenplays and had a collections of poems. He would weave detailed stories for me from memory, including stories from history, classic fairy stories and tales from his own imagination. He enjoyed long walks and car rides with others and I was glad to enjoy many of those. In elementary school, he was my hero. I adored him. In high school, we fought often, but we didn’t stop loving each other.
Then, when I was eighteen years old and in my first year of college, my dad suffered a massive stroke. It was just a week before Thanksgiving. The stroke had left him brain dead and on life support. He died after spending a few days in the hospital. Thanksgiving went by like a blur. Then my grandpa, his father, died just a few weeks before Christmas, on my last day of finals. That Christmas went by like a blur as well. I have a supportive network of family and friends but, of course, I still felt overcome with grief. The next year it was anger and resistance. I didn’t want to participate in holiday traditions, go to parties or do anything like that. I had this idea that participating in festivities and being happy would somehow be an affront to my dad.
This year marks four years since my father’s death and although I will never stop missing him, it has in some ways become easier to deal with the grief. The holidays are always the hardest times, though, not only because I have special memories with him on that day, but also because he died around the holidays.
If you are also grieving over the loss of a loved one during this time, I wish you comfort. But don’t look at what I do as advice for what you should do. Everyone is different; we may be at different stages of grieving and what is good for me may not be good for you.
One thing that I have found helpful in dealing with grief during the holidays is simply accepting that it may be part of this time. I recognize that I, my siblings or other members of my family may be hurting. Lack of communication about this has caused some confusion and misunderstanding in my household.
For instance, we were invited to my sister’s boyfriend’s house on Christmas. I wasn’t interested in going because I thought we should only be with our family. We were doing something with my dad’s side of the family the next day and we had gone to my mom’s earlier that day, but I felt that wasn’t a good enough reason to go participate in another family’s celebration. Once my family saw my reasons and understood that it wasn’t because I didn’t like his family (I think they’re great) I just needed some convincing that it would be good to go. I resisted up until getting to their house. But once inside, we were all greeted with hugs and warm wishes and I realized it was perfectly fine to be enjoying their love.
You see, another thing about grieving during the holidays is realizing that although it is a tough time, you don’t have to be sad or upset throughout the season. For me, and I’m sure for others too, it felt like if I celebrated without him it would be acting as if I didn’t care. Now I know that my dad would like nothing more than for me to be happy, even around the holidays, and I would be no affront to him.
I have found that at this time there are some things that make me feel more at peace or somehow closer to my dad. It can be helpful to continue old traditions or start new ones that are connected to a family member. One family tradition we have is making hot cocoa on the stove from the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s cocoa box every Christmas Eve. We sit around a fire while sipping hot cocoa and just enjoying each other’s company. Before evening, each of us place our stockings on nails along the mantel to await Santa’s gifts. This is one tradition we have made it a point to keep up. Although it is different now, I just can’t see us missing it.
For a few years running, my dad would take our family to Stats, a floral home decorating center in Pasadena. During Christmastime it is filled with trees, ornaments, lights and other decorations to the point that it looks like a winter wonderland. For a family that cannot afford to go to Disneyland, this is the perfect place to go. There is so much to take in that we could spend hours there. My dad would tell us we could pick out one ornament, as a special treat. Although we haven’t been there since I was a kid, I would love to go back. I have yet to ask my sisters and mom how they would feel about going, but it could be a good thing and a lot of fun for us to revisit that tradition.
The past can hurt, but it helps to talk about it. Creating new traditions or even forgoing old ones can create much needed discussion among family members. At times I have avoided bringing up my dad around my mom because I know she must be hurting, but I have learned it is better to bring it up as she may be thinking the same thing about me. Talking about him and our good memories can be very important. It’s also good to have another outlet besides the family. Talking to my close friends about how I’m feeling, including those who knew him and those who never got the chance to meet him, is important to me as well.
This Christmas, I may not have my dad with me in person, but I know I have great memories of a loving man. He is my Santa Claus. Through visits with family and holiday cheer, he will be there is spirit.