Tomorrow marks fourteen years since my dad passed away unexpectedly. He was 48 and healthy. We buried him on Christmas Eve. That means I’ve had fourteen years of, let’s call it … complicated … Christmases. Am I supposed to act ok and happy? Does it make others feel awkward if I’m not shiny and sparkly right now? But if I act too sad, will people think it’s weird since it’s been 14 years now? (To those untouched by the untimely death of a parent, I get it- 14 years seems like a long time, enough time. But somehow it’s just not.)
About the time you think you’ve got a hold on yourself, the holidays come and start chipping away at the strength and defenses you’ve built up through the year. It’s always hard to lose someone close to you, but it seems especially difficult to face an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Such a traumatic event at this time of year shadows all future Christmases, even fourteen years later. The loss isn’t as acute, but a deep ache remains.
So I’m not here to tell you that the untimely and sudden death of a parent gets easier or better; it doesn’t. But it does get different over the years. The gift of time has given me the ability to be less triggered by every father-daughter duo I see, to process my emotions and feelings more internally without turning into an absolute mess on the outside. And there are a few holiday-specific coping mechanisms I’ve learned to implement when I feel the ache start to creep in more than usual. If the holidays are hard for you for whatever reason, I’d love for you to practice some of these mechanisms along with me.
The best and fastest way to drag myself out of a funk is to be of service to others. Fortunately, the holiday season offers plenty of ways to serve our fellow man. If you need a pick-me-up, head to your local food bank, soup kitchen, nursing home, church, etc. The holidays are so hard for so many people- not just those who have lost loved ones. Helping others in even small ways ultimately helps me more.
One way I can feel the ache and depression sneaking up on me is through a lack of motivation. I think things like, “I know my kids would really enjoy [seasonal activity], but I’d really rather just stay home.” But I’ve learned over the years to just dive in, even when I don’t want to. I almost always end up feeling uplifted, refreshed, and better about myself as a wife, mother, and human. It doesn’t have to be anything big or overwhelming- something as simple as driving around local neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights usually does the trick for me. Then once I’ve built up a little momentum, I feel like I’m better equipped to participate in other events.
GO TO CHURCH
You may be surprised to learn that this one is tricky for me. In the immediate aftermath of my dad’s passing, I started questioning everything I thought I knew about God. It took me years to work through things with Him, and I still struggle sometimes, especially at the holidays. But there really is no better feeling than singing “fall on your knees” in worship during the Christmas season. Many churches switch to Christmas music and carols the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and each worship service serves to lift my spirits. Even if you’re on the fence about God or religion, I believe there is power in gathering with others, even if your express purpose it to belt out of few carols with a full band as back-up.
And finally… Don’t underestimate the power of twinkly lights. Is there anything more magical than laying under your Christmas tree and staring up at the lights? Not to me. Add my kids when they’re in calm and contemplative moods, and that’s a recipe for joy every time. It’s a great way to capture your audience and make them talk to you about things that are important to their young hearts. And you may even get the chance to tell them a few things about the grandfather they never got to meet but who would love them with his whole heart.
Merry Christmas, friends. Let’s try to remember that the holidays are really hard for some and extending grace to them may make all the difference.