Pretending the family is together at Christmas


IT WASN'T THE Christmas decorations that surprised me when I walked into a mall in the days just after Halloween. It was how I felt when I saw them. Not sad. Sick.

Not sickened, as in annoyed or disgusted. Sick. My head felt light and my legs unsteady. There was a wave of nausea, followed by a rush of adrenalin as I tried not to pass out.

In that way we have of inspecting our lives as we live them, I watched myself from outside myself as I fought off what felt like flu symptoms.

"Odd," I thought, detached, observing. "Grief manifesting itself as morning sickness. I don't remember reading that in any of the pamphlets at the funeral home."

There will be so many people missing from Christmas this year that it is hard to keep track of the different kinds of sadness I will feel. My mother. My husband's father. My husband's good friend, Mike. All died within 12 remarkable days in August.

"I don't know why we are even having Christmas," said my daughter, Jessie, who is 10. "Everybody is dead."

After completing most of her Christmas shopping, she announced: "If I die, just remember that I love everyone and the presents are in my bedroom closet."

She is just one of those around me who will need customized comforting this Christmas.

It is hard to know where to begin, what to say to whom, how I feel myself.

The grieving books say that the holidays are painful not only for the absence of those we love, but because there is such a contrast between what we are supposed to feel and what we really feel, between the holiday bustle around us and our own feelings of tremendous fatigue. Grief is exhausting. I don't seem to have the energy for the rituals that my children are used to, the ones that will signal to them that their mother is OK.

What we don't have at the holidays is what we need most. Silence, solitude, a time to reflect, remember, recover and plan some kind of future without the ones we love.

Our sadness is accompanied by anxiety and confusion about how we are supposed to celebrate without appearing happy. Someone told me that you never send Christmas cards in the year of a death and that you decorate only modestly. I had never heard that, and my first thought was to ask the one person who would know. My mother.

All around my family are people who are unsure how to approach us, what to say or what to do. And I find myself wondering how to reassure them, how to let them know that we are basically OK and we will not shatter if they ask about our sadness and we will understand if they cannot bring themselves to ask.

The literature on grief is full of advice about the holidays, but grief knows no calendar and we are ambushed by pain every day, not just on the days when the banks and stores are closed. I am just as likely to be stabbed by a memory while pulling on my socks as I am sitting in church on Christmas Eve.

We can console ourselves with new traditions, we are told, that commemorate the missing loved one. Light a tribute candle, plan a group visit to the gravesite, leave a single flower at their place at the holiday dinner table, offer a toast.

That may work for some, but I cannot do such tender things because I know a wave of emotion would sweep me away. My children, for whom I must model grief and composure in the most searing balancing act of my parenthood, would be terrified by the tears that would follow such tributes.

Even so, we are advised to have a plan, any plan, for the holiday season, so we will not be startled into fresh grief by something unexpected.

This is my plan: I will pretend.

My husband's father, my children's gentle grandpa, would always leave in the middle of the Christmas morning chaos to usher at church. He would search through the piles of presents and wrapping paper for his new Christmas socks and his new Christmas suspenders and then he would exit for Mass just as his grandchildren's excitement reached an uncomfortable decibel level.

I will pretend that Grandpa isn't back from church yet.

Mike and my husband were runnin' buddies in the days when they were regularly unsuccessful with women, and it has always been the joke that Libby and I rescued them from a life of idiosyncratic bachelorhood.

There is a picture in our photo album of these two men standing proudly behind their pregnant wives, and Mike and Gary settled into exemplary fatherhood. Mike's only carry-over indulgence was his love of ice cream. He could eat more of it faster than anyone you ever met. When we would visit Mike and Libby and their four boys, Mike would go out for buckets of ice cream and return to sit down among us with a mixing bowl full of the stuff.

I will pretend that Mike is out buying ice cream.

Christmas Eve has always been spent with my family, and my parents never seemed happier than when their four daughters, their four sons-in-law and their 11 grandchildren finally left.

They had a diminishing capacity for the noise of so many yapping daughters and squealing kids, and they often seemed overwhelmed by the confusion as my sisters and I scurried about, barking at children, serving food and teasing each other acidly. We would hardly notice our quiet parents until it was time to leave, and then there would be kisses and hugs all around.

This Christmas I will pretend that my mom and my dad are there with us as always. Waiting patiently, lovingly, for us to say good-bye.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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