The holidays are really hard after a loss. When the entire family is together, the absence of the one who died is overwhelming. All you can think of is that they should be here.
I remember once we found out we were pregnant with Ginny, I imagined bringing her home to Oklahoma to spend Christmas with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I would imagine her waking up on Christmas morning and opening gifts. I couldn’t wait! When she died, all those dreams would be left unrealized.
When the holidays approached after Ginny died last year, each picture perfect Christmas card I saw felt like a small punch in the gut. They reminded me that I’ll never have a picture perfect family because Ginny will always be missing on Earth.
The grief was so strong last year. I knew it would be a challenging time, especially because I was also in the first trimester of pregnancy with Chet. My emotions would be out of control. I tried to set expectations for myself and others. I tried to give myself grace to feel however I felt, and I told family that I might need to step away into a back room or sit out some gatherings potentially. I did do all those things, and it was still really hard.
The first night after the long trip back to Oklahoma, I wanted to make sure that Ginny was remembered and that family knew it was ok to talk about her. I gave homemade bracelets to my mom, mother-in-law, sisters, and niece. The bracelets were in a set of three: one with pink beads, one with gray beads, and one with white beads. The pink represented Ginny’s life. She was a real person who lived on Earth. The gray represented our suffering and what we’ve learned in grief. The white represented hope for heaven and our future family. It was a sweet moment to explain the bracelets and hand them out to the women in my family. But that moment also led to one of several really hard moments of the holiday…
My mom was touched and thankful for the bracelets, but then she realized hers might be a little loose. She wondered if she could swap with one of the sisters or maybe I could adjust it. It was an easy enough request. I did want the bracelets to fit perfectly, but I couldn’t handle that at the time. I blew up and yelled, “Well if you don’t like it, just throw it away!” and stormed off. I hid in a back room and broke down crying. My mom found me and apologized. She assured me she loved the bracelets and what they represent. In tears, I told her why I was really crying, “I wanted to bring you a precious grandbaby for Christmas. Instead I brought you this ill-fitting consolation prize.” She hugged me and told me how much she missed Ginny too.
There were other moments like that. For a lot of people Christmas is already a challenging time with extended family and friends. When you add grief on top of it, it can feel impossible. There will be people who say the wrong thing. It may be the comments that should be helpful but are not, like everything happens for a reason. It may be someone explaining “healthy” and “unhealthy” ways to grieve and insinuating that you are doing it wrong. It may be someone pretending like nothing ever happened. It can all be painful, but God can give grace to get through it. It helps me to remember that the whole family is grieving and we are all trying to navigate it in the best ways we can.
If you are grieving this Christmas remember to give yourself grace. It’s okay to avoid things that are hard. It’s ok to step away if you need to. It’s ok to say “no” to a gathering (especially with COVID as an excuse). And most importantly, it’s ok to talk about your loved one who died. It’s ok to remember and honor them this season. It’s ok to grieve however you need to.
I was recently reminded of something very helpful in a Joyful Mourning podcast. When it feels like Christmas is imperfect and broken, keep in mind that it was always imperfect. Jesus was born in a manger far from home. He was born to die. Mary would live to see her son die. But Jesus bore all the brokenness for our redemption. If it feels too hard to read the verses describing the celebration of Jesus’s birth, maybe read the Easter story instead this year. God will meet us where we are. Remember that it is through Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection that we are reunited with God and our loved ones are in heaven for us to meet again.
As hard as last year’s Christmas was, there were some really great moments as well. I asked family members to donate the gifts they would’ve gotten for Ginny to charity. They all did, and that blessed Daniel and me so much. We also got to announce to extended family that I was pregnant again. My favorite response came from Daniel’s grandma. She looked us each in the eye with tears in hers, and told us she was proud of us. In that moment, she was recognizing how hard this was and celebrating the new life at the same time. She then offered to get a stone to memorialize Ginny right next to great-grandma Ginny’s grave. It was such a special moment. We were also blessed to see a stocking for Ginny hung in both my parents’ and Daniel’s parents’ houses.
This year is going to look a lot different. We won’t be able to travel back home to Oklahoma due to COVID. It will be so sad to not be with our whole family at Christmas. But it will also be Chet’s first Christmas! I can’t wait to see him look at the tree and give him his gifts. His stocking will hang right next to his sister’s. We will take an imperfect family picture on an imperfect Christmas day. Sounds like a memory I will treasure forever.