On navigating the holiday season after loss

"For those experiencing grief this holiday season, I would say this: You only have to do the first year once"

Published December 22, 2021 11:59AM (EST)

 (Bobbi Lin / Food52)
(Bobbi Lin / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

I started feeling anxious about Thanksgiving and Christmas in August. By October, I decided the best way to get through the holidays was to escape them.

My husband, Erik, had died suddenly in a mountain-climbing accident in late May. Since then, I had spent my days in a sad stupor of grief: crying, struggling to eat, and grasping for motivation even to get dressed.

And now the holidays were coming: my first holiday season without him. Right after Halloween (it seems to get earlier every year), the twinkle lights and holiday candy began appearing in the supermarket. All things red, green, and glitter were in. I needed out.

From the guest bed of my sister's house, where I had been staying, I opened my laptop and clicked onto the website for R.E.I. Adventures.

"Plan Your Escape," the home-page banner read. Yes, please.

I scrolled and clicked through every trip that straddled Christmas and New Year's. Hike with alpacas in South America? Hmm. Should I kayak in the American Southwest? Trek the Galápagos? I settled on the very farthest place from my life: New Zealand.

I clicked my mouse a few times, typed my name, address, credit card number, clicked again, and booked the trip. If there had been a commercial space flight to Mars, I would have taken out a second mortgage and booked it. That's how badly I dreaded the holidays that first year after Erik died.

Grief has a way of turning sweet to bitter. Grief bends happy occasions into sad ones, and can make parties the loneliest places on earth. The blithe holiday cheer — the collective swirl of cookie baking, roasted turkey, Champagne toasts, and swingy Christmas standards like "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" — was like a big party everyone was invited to but me.

Everyone's happiness made my grief feel invisible and unimportant. Worse, the world's carrying on made Erik seem invisible and unimportant, like his death hadn't made a dent.

Yet even as I took comfort in my holiday escape hatch to the far end of the earth, I began feeling uneasy about the trip. For one, I was physically weak with grief. My body, the body that had once carried me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and sustained 14-hour shifts in a pastry kitchen, now struggled to walk around the block. I had aches and sniffles all the time.

Also, there was my family. I remembered the reaction when I first told my mom and sister about my New Zealand plan.

"Oh. That sounds exciting," my sister said, with zero enthusiasm. My mom, who had dropped by for tea, asked if I was sure.

"I don't know what else to do," I sobbed. "I don't know how to make Christmas nice. I just need to pretend like there is no Christmas."

My mom gathered me into her arms and squeezed me hard. My sister blotted away tears. My dad was at home, probably researching young widowhood or life insurance, without my even asking. They were grieving Erik's loss, too. My absence from Christmas would sadden them even more.

I guessed (grief is often guesswork) that feeling broken with family in Philadelphia might be better than proving my resilience alone in New Zealand. I canceled my trip.

Despite willing it away, Christmas Eve arrived. In my Italian-American family tradition, Christmas Eve is the main event. Normally, the evening was a boisterous, overheated eatathon, my parents' house bursting at the seams with cousins, aunts, uncles, gag gifts, seafood upon seafood dish, pasta, cookies, and pie.

But that year we kept it small. Only my parents, my sister and her family, my aunt, and I gathered at the table. The seats were carefully arranged so that there was no obvious gap where Erik would have been. Yet everything still felt wrong. Of course there was an obvious gap, one no creative chair arrangement could fill.

From my dining room chair, I could see memories of Erik from holidays past: on the living room couch, wearing a green sweater and button-down shirt, eating my mom's pepperoni pinwheels and laughing with my dad and cousins over a beer. The memories were so vivid. I never felt like someone was so heartbreakingly close to being tangible, yet so immutably out of grasp.

I cried at the table. I barely ate my mom's beautiful meal, the meal I anticipated all year. I snapped at my aunt for asking about a birthday check I never cashed. I went to bed, and instead of looking forward to Christmas Day, I only felt an exhausted relief that Christmas Eve was over: one day down, one to go.

* * *

Seven years on, I look back on that night. There were nice moments, like a crackling fire and laughs supplied by my curly-haired baby nephew. But the first Christmas holiday post-Erik was pretty much terrible.

I rode tides of sadness, emptiness, and loss, hour by hour, until the holidays were over. I leaned in to the happy, normal moments when they came, taking someone's advice to feel grateful, not guilty, for the reprieve those good moments offered. I ate some cookies. I embraced the hugs.

For those experiencing new loss and grief this holiday season, I would say this: You only have to do the first year once. It will not be this hard forever. Do not put pressure on yourself to make the holidays "nice." Do things that feel supportive and nurturing, not obligatory. Bake cookies because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.

Likewise, do not put pressure on yourself to make the holidays unnecessarily joyless. Forcing misery is guilt, not love — love for them, or for yourself. Guilt is a common, but largely unhelpful, emotion of grief. You can smile and miss your loved one at the same time. There is room.

There is no end to grief, as the saying goes. But it does evolve. This Christmas, as in all subsequent Christmases since Erik died, my eyes will well with tears as I hang a special ornament on the Christmas tree, a small portrait of him. I always put him on a branch at the top, like my angel.

I will also have fun. I will bake cookies because I want to. I'll eat too much apple pie. I will laugh and celebrate with my second husband and my stepdaughter and other relatives, and be cozy around the fireplace.

There is no end to grief. But believe this: There is also no end to joy.

By Lisa Ruland

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