Summary: This information was put together for a workshop on "Coping with the Holidays" (Adapted from the book, "The Empty Chair: Handling Grief on Holidays and Special Occasions" by Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries)
Start with some family information:
I grew up in a tight knit family spending my Sunday afternoons after church with all my extended family at my grandparent’s house. I am the eldest grandchild and my grandfather spent a lot of time with me growing up. I had trouble reading so before my grandfather began his day, he came to the bus stop at the end of our driveway and helped me to read my homework. My grandfather was the life of the party, he made everything fun. I remember going to cut wood with him one day and he made me laugh so hard that I had trouble loading the wood into the trailer. I remember going fishing with him and his brother, my great uncle, and they made me laugh so hard that I almost fell out of the boat. When things were hard at my house, I trip to my grandparent’s house and a visit with my grandfather always made things better. The holidays were the best. For example on Thanksgiving my grandmother would be working feverishly in the kitchen while everyone else would be in the living room enjoying the antics of my grandfather. If things got too heated or heavy, my grandfather would always have a story or a joke that would just make everyone laugh. After my grandmother finally got everything cooked (she is a great cook) we would gather in the kitchen, have the blessing and enjoy the best food this side of heaven. My grandfather would wait until you had the drink in your mouth and then do or say something funny and the drink would come out of your nose. Oh, what good memories!
These holiday traditions are vivid in my mind. What also is vivid is the contrast that come when my grandfather died. My grandmother is a strong willed woman and she was determined to keep the traditions just as they were before my grandfather died. Let me say this, as far as my perspective, it didn’t work. My grandmother was doing her normal holiday meal in the kitchen. My grandparents’ house is an old fashioned closed floor plan. There is a sharp distinction between the kitchen and the living room. Things were normal in the kitchen but things in the living room were very different. Gone was the life of the party. There was much weeping and sorrow in the living room. My grandmother finished her fabulous meal but our appetites were lagging. Nothing was the same even though we tried to keep it the same for my grandmother. Since that time, we have changed our holiday traditions. My grandfather had difficulties leaving the house for very long so when he died we changed the place to my mother’s house. My grandmother is more fatigued so others of us have taken up making the various dishes. We have watched movies which we would never have done when my grandfather was alive. My Uncle Wendell, taking after my grandfather, turned into the life of the party. However, even my uncle Wendell is not my grandfather. Interesting to see how things will be this holiday season because my Uncle Wendell’s wife, my aunt Lynette, died this past year. Things change whether we like it or not.
Death is never in season. Holidays frequently seem to serve as markers of the event. Holidays are, for most people, special times of the year. They come with the regularity of the calendar. We look forward to them, wanting to make each one special and significant. But the holidays will be different for many this year. Grief has ripped from us the uncompromised joy and celebration.
I grew up in the country. Had an interesting conversation with some nurses about castrating hogs- this is the environment where I grew up. When I was a boy we had a large forest in the back of our property. Spent many hours in the woods hiking and making trails to ride my bike. One time we had a fire in our woods and the fire department came and put it out. Several years ago, there was a large fire in Yellowstone National Park that burned many acres. That is what death is like, a firestorm in the forest. The fuel for that fire are the feelings associated with holidays.
Grief is tough enough, but when the holidays come around, grief becomes all the more complicated. After all, this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Grief is viewed as the opposite of that with sadness, emptiness and loneliness and this is unacceptable for the holiday season.
Death, like fire, devastates, destroys. Death seems to leave nothing but ashes in its wake. Landmarks are destroyed. A sense of hopelessness overwhelms. We are not certain whether we can find our bearings again. Death, like a forest fire, leaves ashes- ashes of loneliness in the absence of our loved one. A holiday celebration makes us face the reality of death all the more directly. The loneliness and deep pain threaten to engulf us. Our heart and our soul feel burned to the core.