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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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

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. Thank you for this Mark. I just cannot do all the holiday stuff..I am trying but I just can't. I wish there was a place I could go to where I can't hear Christmas songs, where I don't see other people being happy..where families are together. My husband made my family all the better, without him I am lost and sad.

    1. It is so hard to get away from the holiday music and decorations, Sallie. They are everywhere. And the message is that everyone should be happy, so everyone who isn't, feels doubly sad. Evelyn loved Christmas and I picked up on her energy. I hope you find something that you like to do or eat, and this year it probably won't even be connected to any holiday. Something that lets you breathe deeply and enjoy the moment. I'll be keeping you in my thoughts.

  2. I am being so gentle with myself that it is embarrassing. I'm allowing myself to be the Grinch this year. I bought presents for myself "from" my dead father and daughter. I'm hoarding chocolates for the actual days of the holidays, for when I feel deprived of the holiday cheers and chaos that sail all around me. Take care of yourself, too, Mark.

    1. You make me smile, Robin. I like your plans.