Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Home For the Holidays

Finding a place to survive when your world has been torn apart.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice or another observance that you celebrate at this time of year, our memories of being HOME for it are probably similar.

The idea of going HOME for the holidays fills us with warm images, of sleigh bells and dreidels, of lattes and latkes, of Hallmark moments complete with snow, ice skating, and houses with glowing lights. Although if we live in a warmer climate, Santa might wear shorts, and Christmas lights are strung in palm trees.

We remember the HOME where we grew up, the holiday activities we’d do every year, the decorations we put up, the special foods we’d eat, and the different gatherings of family and friends. Eventually we moved away and began our own lives, creating a new HOME with a different set of holiday traditions.

No matter how old we are, every year when the holidays come around, our minds return HOME to a place that has become slightly mythical, a place of warmth where there was always love, friendly banter, and endless sugar cookies.

Going HOME renewed our sense of hope that had flagged over the year. Returning HOME was like starting over. We could dream again of how wonderful life would be. It was our bar at “Cheers” where everyone knew our name and accepted us with all our faults.

The first holiday season after a death, our sense of HOME is pretty much destroyed.

Where we live now feels wrong because someone dear to us, someone who made it a home, is missing, and what we’re left with is a house that feels empty. The song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” takes on irony for us. Besides muttering angry thoughts under our breath every time we hear it, we still desperately want to reclaim whatever is left of HOME so that we can wrap ourselves in it until the holidays are over.

The Christmas after Evelyn died was incredibly hard because it was her favorite season. She loved to decorate, bake, sing in holiday Revels shows, and buy gifts for everyone she knew. Often I plugged into her energy. That first year I actually managed to put up a Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent, but could not get myself to add any lights or decorations.

On Christmas Eve, I was feeling a little better and added a single strand of white lights and two ornaments, a white-silver heart with red and green garlands for Evelyn’s love, and a dark-green, tissue-paper heart for me, because my heart felt torn and dark. Rather than play Christmas music, especially the happy Swedish songs that Ev loved, I put on a CD by Sarah McLachlan singing of her losses and longing: “the night’s too long and cold here without you.” It seemed more appropriate for remembering that refugee family from long ago.

Even if we muster our courage this first year and risk gathering with friends for holiday celebrations, we still go home to an empty house. Rather than hide away, or sit and stew, we can choose to do things differently this year. It’s going to be different anyway. We don’t even have to consider what we do as part of the festivities. We can simply do what feels good.

We can cook food from a culture not our own.
We can watch a movie trilogy like The Lord of the Rings.
We can sit in the back yard bundled up and watch the stars for hours, and realize that we are part of their cosmic wonder.
We can also skip town with friends for a couple of days, and start a new tradition.

Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself.

There is nothing you need to do for the holidays except find the places and people who nourish you.


  1. I love your writing. This is my first Christmas without him and I want to sleep until 2015. Thank you for being there. For expressing what is deep within.

    1. Thank you, Tricia. I'm so sorry about your loss, and I know how hard that first Christmas can be. So much is different. It was hard enough to get through each ordinary day, and now we have to listen to all the advertisements telling us we're supposed to be joyful! I will think of you as I continue to write and share.

  2. Ah, home. This piece is so beautiful, Mark. This year, my mother-in-law who will be 99 in January was invited to visit relatives in Connecticut for Christmas. This is her childhood home. She surprised us and decided to go. I think it is that homing instinct, the place where mother was, the place where she hopes to find her ideal past before her only child died. So I'm released to leave the house where I've spent the last six Christmases with my sons, mother-in-law, and a huge sense of my husband's absence. Instead, I'm taking a road trip with my dog to visit my son and his wife in NC. I have the fantasy this is the beginning of a new family tradition. I think I'm still looking for HOME.

    1. Beautifully said, Elaine. I wonder if home is more of a physical place or a place that we carry inside us.