Grief has taught me many lessons since my mother passed away last August. Its teachings have burnished me like a refiner’s fire, leaving me forever changed in ways that I am still struggling to understand. It has shown me my capacity for love and for pain, as well as a compassion and empathy that I could only develop from walking this long and winding path. I thought I had learned all that I could from grief in these last months, but this holiday season has proven me wrong.
I have kept myself very busy all semester, being productive at school, performing a lot, having shoulder surgery to repair a long-time issue. I felt strong- almost invincible where grief was concerned. I was doing so well- able to laugh and smile whenever someone asked how I was handling Mom’s death. Even when the semester ended and the holidays began, I kept very busy, going into the office to serve on a search committee and working on plans for a festival I am hosting. Oh, small things happened to shake my composure – we bought our Christmas tree, and decked our home with lights and festive ornaments. I felt a wave of grief splash over me, a brief feeling of sadness accompanied by a few tears. “Just a nod from the holidays…I’ll be just fine.” Famous last words…
I played my last performance of the year last night – Amahl and the Night Visitors, a charming Christmas tale prominently featuring the relationship between a boy and his loving mother. The performance ended, and I was officially done for the holiday. No more business to keep my mind occupied. Instead, we spent time at home listening to Christmas music, writing Christmas cards doing some holiday shopping, baking cookies for the Wayward Seniors at Princeton Towers. I began to feel the weight lodge itself in my heart, the heaviness increasing by the hour. As if to mirror my mood, the weather in Birmingham became gray, overcast, and soggy. While everyone else was cheery and excited for the holiday, I began to spiral into feelings I hadn’t experienced since August and September. How could this be? I had done everything right- I wrote about my feelings, I cried when I needed to, I spoke with a grief counselor…and yet, the pain that I thought had dissipated was obviously still there, waiting for its opportunity to rise again.
Today, I experienced the raw emotion of grief with much of the intensity that I felt at Mom’s bedside. My heart again felt the huge hole that I thought had mended; the tears coursed freely down my face several times, and I even felt the old panic – ‘my mother is dead…how can this be?’, my breath catching in my chest. As the darkness came, my mood darkened with it. So not me- I am Mary Poppins, always looking for the light. I have so many good things in my life, so much love- how dare I feel sadness for myself that my mother would not be here for Christmas? Yes, I have many blessings…but I am also human, and the holidays have brought with them the echoes of Christmases past, from childhood magic to last year’s holiday, which Mom dubbed, “the best Christmas ever.”
Each time another tidal wave of grief crashed over me, somehow Dan would know, wrapping me in his loving embrace, rocking me while murmuring words of encouragement. The dogs would appear at my side, leaning into me, gazing into my eyes. The wave would subside, and I could breathe again. I realize that every feeling of loss will be amplified over the holiday- how could they not be? So many heartstrings are tied to my feelings of happiness and gratitude of the season, from my earliest memories. I have never had a Christmas without my mother, and frankly, I still don’t know how to feel about it or how to celebrate without Mom there. Part of me wants to recreate past holidays, and the other part wants to create totally new traditions.
What do I want to feel? I want to feel joy and gratitude for the gift of having a mother who loved me so much, doing everything she could, against all odds, to give me a loving and magical childhood. I want to feel laughter bubbling up when I think of our silly songs and traditions, our shopping trips to TJ Maxx and lunches sitting in the drive in at Sonic, watching people and giggling over little things. I want to feel tenderness when I hear the whispers of her last words of love to me before she left. I want to feel confidence that she is still with me, just on the other side of the veil…where I can talk to her, but can only hope to understand her ethereal reply. And you know what? I do feel all of these things. But I also feel bereft, I feel great sadness, nostalgia for something precious that can never be again.
To pretend that I am untouched by my mother’s death would be wrong. This is all okay, normal feelings to accompany a great loss. The seminal thing I am learning about my grief is to keep on going, keep on meeting the waves and swimming right through them. This is not to say that I need to pretend like everything is perfect- it is okay to show my heart to the world, to not always be chipper and upbeat. Grief has given me so many gifts, some that are obvious, some more subtle. It again boils down to perspective, how I choose to see these gifts. It also means that I can feel all of these emotions – the sadness, the joy – at the same time. They come together to create in me a new way of looking at life.
This holiday season is a precious time – a time for me to not only remember and be grateful for what was, but to also see the beauty in what is and what will be. Dan and I have already begun some new holiday traditions that are just ours, as well as our nods to the past. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief, and I realize that some days I will feel strong and healed, and some days I will swim in the mire of loss. We all go down this rabbit hole at some point; we can either let it consume us in its fire, or face it, letting the emotions run through us, moving and changing with them. I have no doubt that a small piece of my heart will hold onto the loss of my mother, but the biggest part will hold on to the love that she shared with me…something that I want to set free. Even just writing the words has lightened the heaviness in my heart, perhaps more magic of this holiday season.