Even during the best of times, holidays are stressors. What takes many of us through the whirlwind of spending, cooking, entertaining, noise, and confusion is the bedrock of family.
From childhood, we are taught the holidays are all about family. That also means they can be especially painful following the death, or absence, of a close family member. There are no easy answers to navigating these waters, except knowing that, somehow, we must.
In October, I lost my father, Kaye Patrick. A child of the depression whose father ran out when he was still in kindergarten, my dad worked hard to give me, my two brothers, and sister the happy holidays he never had.
Many of our family traditions start with him: Advent calendars, cornucopias on the tree filled with candy and coins; stringing popcorn, and countless others I hold dear.
I was fortunate to have my father visit us last year during his last Christmas. To my delight, he was able to share many of those same traditions with my two toddlers, Nathan, 4, and Kenneth, 2.
Now that dad's gone, however, I wonder if I can, emotionally and mentally, carry on these traditions. Instead of affirmations, I see loss and regret.
I look at the chair where dad sat next to Nathan, during his last Christmas dinner, and celebrating the days to come seems almost a burden.
Even when I wondered how I would make it through the holidays, however, I heard my father's voice: “You must.”
One of the secrets of surviving grief is not running from it. Don't surrender to it, but accept it.
Invite it in and hope it loses its power over you, even as fresh memories, sounds, smells, and tastes threaten to re-open the flood gates of grief.
When that happens, don't be ashamed to cry. Tears can heal and release. This isn't the time to fake it to make it. You're not required to continually celebrate or attend every function. People will understand.
Take a moment to remember, in some personal way, the person you've lost, either through an object, a story, or a prayer. Pausing to remember can bring you together again – if only for a fleeting moment.
When I was overseas in the military, my father and I would light a candle at midnight on Christmas Eve. Ignoring the distance and time zones between us, we came together at midnight.
I plan to light that candle for the rest of my days, and pass the tradition along to my boys.
I know there will be moments of joy this holiday season. I'll embrace them, even as I remember my loss. That's how dad would want it.
May the days ahead bring joy to you and yours.