When Grief Comes Home for Christmas

This is the year I learned that elevating one specific holiday to the single most anticipated family event has its down side.

A few days before Thanksgiving I strung fairy lights on two windows in my dining room and adorned my mantel with decorations that included a statue of a fir tree, three sparkling votive holders, and an angel. It wasn’t much, but it was something – a trifling attempt to face the first holiday season after losing my daughter, Ana.
Ana celebrated her last Christmas a year ago. She died three months later, on March 22, 2017 at the age of 15.
I’m not religious. By birth, I am Jewish. My parents are cultural Jews and atheists. Growing up, I observed a few select Jewish holidays including Chanukah and Passover. We didn’t celebrate Christmas in my childhood home. Trees, stockings, and murmurings of Santa were strictly forbidden.
I didn’t get my first taste of Christmas until I met my husband, didn’t get my first real tree until I was 26 years old. After that, all bets were off. The sheer ornament of Christmas compared with Chanukah was intoxicating, the concept of Santa Claus absurdly wonderful. I embraced the holiday, owning it with the enthusiasm of a true believer in all things red and green. Nearly two decades after that first tree, Christmas still felt new to me.
The angel is the first decoration I’ve owned that is not fully secular. I bought it to honor and acknowledge Ana, not because I think she’s an angel or because she’s in a place some people call heaven, but because I know her spirit has expanded, that she still exists. She still exists.
The angel, lovely and silent, looks a little bit like her.
Unlike me, Ana always knew Christmas. The holiday was entirely hers. She spent five Christmases with cancer, but her illness did not dampen her joy. She did not spend a single Christmas in the hospital and that was more than a gift – it was a miracle.
Ana’s first Christmas was my fourth. I was still trying to find my red and white striped Christmas legs, so her arrival into my life (and the subsequent arrival of her sister three years later) shaped the holiday for the next 16 years. There is not an ornament in our collection that she hasn’t touched, not a carol that doesn’t remind me of her wide blue eyes on Christmas morning.
This year grief will dull the shine of what was our family’s most cherished tradition. I wonder, can I do it? Can I hang her stocking knowing it will remain empty? Can I walk through row after row of perfect Douglas firs and blue spruces without openly weeping?
I had no idea a family could lose so much – two sisters unwrapping ornaments in mid-December, two steaming mugs of hot chocolate after the first snowfall, two sets of pajama-clad footsteps on the stairs at 6 a.m., and that tiny bit of magic that makes it seem possible that angels and elves might really exist. It’s gone, just like that.
This is the year I learned that elevating one specific holiday to the single most anticipated family event has its down side. The rituals I loved most about Christmas are now my greatest sorrow.
There are quiet corners of the Web where groups of bereaved parents face the same anguish as me. Within our bulletin boards and private Facebook groups, we struggle with the same questions.
Should I hang her stocking?
Should I decorate his grave?
How can I incorporate her into our extended family’s celebrations?
Will I be able to get out of bed on Christmas morning?
There’s no solace in keeping company with parents who share the same agony as me. Yet, I’m hopeful. There are parents who get through it, who have learned to adapt to the loss.
Perhaps wrapping Christmas up so tightly with my children is a blessing. Ana feels closest to me when I recall her joy. It’s much easier to remember her happiest moments when I’m surrounded by this many reminders – red, green, gold, and white.
That’s why I strung those fairy lights up in my dining room, lit half a dozen candles on Thanksgiving, and spent far too much money on decorations for my younger daughter’s bedroom.
It’s why I intend to hang Ana’s stocking and fill it with tumbled stones, dried flowers, and notes to put on her memorial.
It’s why I’ll listen to the familiar music and watch the holiday movies that we cherished as a family of four.
When the lights are lit and everything’s in its place on Christmas Eve, I will visualize Ana’s spirit lingering close by, content that we haven’t given up on Christmas or family. Executing these rituals takes some bravery, but Ana showed me how to be brave. She also showed me that life is for living, no matter how hard it gets.