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What's Left?: Christmas is a time for memories — even the sad ones

Grief during the most wonderful time of the year can feel displaced, but it's better to embrace the feeling than run from it.

101321.O.DG.EMMA MCNAMEE
Emma McNamee

When I was a kid, Christmas was spent with my Grandpa Tom and Grandma Jan and my mom’s brother. My sisters, my parents and I would make the trek to their house on the lake every Christmas Eve without fail and some of my favorite memories are from that time.

Then, when I was in eighth grade, my grandpa Tom slipped on an icy patch and hit his head. It was the middle of December, and my family spent the Christmas season watching the steady decline of someone we loved. He was gone before January was over.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a long time — almost an exact month between the fall and the day he died, but it felt like an eternity to watch someone you love suffer like that. My grandfather and I had been close; to watch him turn into someone unrecognizable — someone who at times no longer had the capacity to recognize me — just about broke my heart.

Things changed irreparably after his death; I grieved the loss of my relationship with my uncle long before we stopped speaking, and my grandmother became far less present in our lives years before she passed away in 2019.

It's impossible, in many ways, to separate out my feelings over these losses with the rest of the holiday. I think for a lot of people, Christmas — the holidays in general — can come with certain burdens. For me, that comes in the form of a lot of grief, of connections that have died, family I don’t speak to and the reminder that I have essentially lost my relatives on my mom’s side.

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There are plenty of people whose circumstances and feelings around the holidays are more complicated than mine. There are people who don’t spend the holidays with family because they’re no longer welcome in the homes they grew up in, or they just can’t make it back or it’s easier, sometimes, to just be apart.

But for a time of the year so steeped in themes like family and traditions, it can feel really isolating to not engage. For years, I carried my anger, my sadness, my grief over the loss of my grandfather and the effect it had on our family dynamics into every holiday season. Every song about the “most wonderful time of the year,” feels a little crueler when you’ve just lost a loved one. The more I tried to force myself into the holiday spirit and reclaim the joy I once felt, the sadder I was. I spent a number of years just dreading the approaching holidays, and regarding them with no small amount of resentment.

That feeling has softened over time, as the sting of absence grows a little less sharp and I learned better ways to cope with that grief — chiefly, I stopped trying to force myself into being happy when I felt miserable. In the last few years, I have even found myself looking forward to Christmas, which is remarkable because, for a time, I never thought I would again.

Still, the ghost of Christmas past is one that follows me home every year. I miss the way things were. I miss my grandparents' house on the lake; the red lights on their tree; the way my uncle wrapped presents so they were impossible to open or not at all; my Grandpa Tom’s gag gifts and the way the house smelled when he cooked dinner. I miss all these things and more, but mostly, I miss the people.

Now, however, I make room for my grief; it gets its own seat at the table. I stop thinking of it as a thing that isolates me from the happiness of this time of year and I commit myself to memories — the act of making new ones, and remembering the old ones that brought me joy.

So this year, I spent Thanksgiving weekend and the day after Christmas with the family of some of my grandparents' closest friends. Their grandchildren remain some of my oldest friends and I treasure that friendship all the more for the way it feels like a continuation of an old story. We gather the entire group around the table to play cards. Throughout the night, I get to hear about Tom and Jan Kroll — my grandparents — by people who knew them differently, but loved them no less, and for a little bit during the holidays, they are alive as they ever were. If we keep talking about them, they’re still a part of our lives. Their memories live on, because we will them to do so, and if that’s not a Christmas miracle in its own right, I don’t know what is.

Related Topics: CHRISTMAS
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