Holiday Grief, Holiday Healing

Fifteen years ago today, in an early morning ice storm on slick, treacherous roads, my father and I began the long, cold, 900 mile drive from Arkansas to South Dakota. The night before, my mother had died of multiple myeloma, after being in a Little Rock hospital for a month, my father at her side, hundreds of miles from home.

That two-day drive still seems surreal in my memory, like a scene from a Faulkner story. The holiday season meant that at every gas station and every cafe we were greeted with festive and well-intentioned good cheer. “Where are you from?” “Where are you headed?” “Merry Christmas!” “Y’all have a good holiday!”

We smiled. What else could we do?

When we finally arrived on Christmas eve at the farm where I grew up, the house was dark and quiet. Some presents that had arrived were on the dining room table, wrapped and addressed to Mom and Dad. A few decorations were up, but not many—my mother had made the journey to the hospital’s Myeloma Institute in November expecting to stay only a day or two, with plenty of time to swing by my family’s home in Milwaukee for Thanksgiving and them back to South Dakota to unpack her many hand-made decorations and to get the house ready for the holidays.

The next day, December 25, brought visits from neighbors and relatives, gifts of casseroles and food trays, and the start of funeral preparations.

All these years later, I can think of that Christmas with some perspective and with fondness for my mother rather than grief. This year I look forward with real joy to spending time with our son and new daughter-in-law and to talking with family members who live far away. Still, the season has never really been the same. Now, when I see people traveling at holiday times, especially at airports, I try to remember that not all of them are celebrating or going to a happy destination.

If you or someone you know is grieving this holiday season, Dr. Camille Wortman offers excellent suggestions for how to navigate the next few days and weeks in “Getting Through the Holidays: Advice from the Bereaved.”

My mother always loved Christmas, which makes it easier for me to love it, too, maybe even more than before. Miss you always.


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