Christmas Peace Comes After Loss

Holidays have been really tough for me since 2013, a few months after my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Those last holidays together were excruciating and the years after have been difficult to say the least. You are just going through the motions feeling empty inside. While you try hard, it is never quite the same again and really that’s okay. It’s a change in your life, you keep old traditions and strive for new ones to make sense of the loss. The change is a way you cope and it seems that each year you embrace the old with the new, like feeling a warm hug from your lost loved one.

My mom loved the holidays and Christmas was her birthday so that day is a double whammy of grief for me and my daughters as well as the other people who loved my generous, kind badass of a mom. The first Christmas without her was blur and by the second Christmas, we no longer lived in the same house as so many of my memories which helped me immensely. But not everyone wants, can or needs to move, it’s just what happened in my life for other reasons but the change helped me spark into a new part of my life.

Last year, my oldest and middle daughter moved out just days before Christmas when my oldest bought her first house. Exciting and a little disconcerting at the same time. More changes. The nest was more empty but what I have found is that while at first, when that whole empty nest starts hitting you, you want to cling to the old and familiar life you had. That’s normal. I went from being a caretaker for my mom, to being an orphan, to having a mostly empty nest in just a few short years. Mid-life can be tough sometimes. There is a ton of transition not to mention the fact you realize, hey, my life isn’t all out there in front of me now like it was twenty years before. But that in of itself isn’t a bad thing either. I mean it sounds horrible but what it does is focus your energy, you start becoming very picky how you spend your time and whom you spend your time.

Chances are if you have made it midlife, you’ve seen some shit. You’ve dealt not only with joys and happy moments, but tragedy and loss. You’re nostalgic for the old days when you gathered at a table with your grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles but you realize that a good many of them may have passed or you live at different corners of the country. While this seems sad and it can be, you refocus once again on the ever-changing station of your life. This is the same things your grandparents and parents probably had to do. Let go of the past and embrace the present, the future. Nothing stays the same but there is joy in today.

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Mom opening presents

Today is a bit snowy and grey in northwestern Ohio promising a white Christmas tomorrow. After leaving my daughter’s house this afternoon, I decided to visit my mother’s grave as it will be arctic cold tomorrow and really, other than checking on it, I never feel that my mom is there. The graveyard sits on a hill above the small white clapboard Lutheran church where we have attended church off and on since the mid 1980’s. Many of the graves around my mom are people I knew as a kid and were very welcoming to us all these years. Before my mom passed, I would ride my bike on these hills and on a hot day, stop and sit under one of the pines to cool off. The graveyard is a peaceful, beautiful place if you aren’t creeped out by dead people (I am not). But since my mom has been buried here, it always made me incredibly sad and I avoid it for the most part other than to look after her grave.

When I drove out, I thought I’m probably just setting myself up to be down in the dumps. I was alone for the remainder of this Christmas Eve afternoon until my husband gets home later from work. I parked in the snowy circle next to my mom’s grave and bundled up. As I stood looking at her grave, I found I didn’t feel sadness but peace. My mom isn’t there, just her body. The graveyard is not a big one, but I walked to the side that faces the church standing between tall evergreens that have been there longer than I have been alive. The snow blanketed the plowed field between the church and cemetery, creating a pastoral winter scene that one might frame and hang on their wall. Maybe this is the point of acceptance. Not that I don’t miss my mom every day, but the point where peace finally settles over you like a warm blanket of love and memories.

I hesitate to say that I won’t have a day where I’m back at the cemetery in tears but this is a step beyond what I have felt. Grief isn’t something I do well but who does? My mom should be here with us, celebrating, wrapping presents, giving us orders on what food we will bring and so on. Except she’s not and it’s taken me four long years to get back into the Christmas spirit. A spirit that is different from my last happy Christmas. Loss changes you, changes the way you see life and now I embrace the small things even more. The edge softens and you start to be able to enjoy the happy memories without crying. There is no magic number or time that this will happen as I am certain it is personal for each one of us.

However, there is hope that one day the pain will dull, your heart will fill again with your changed life and while there is always that empty space, love fills that void allowing you to feel mostly whole again. The road to here isn’t easy. It really f’ing sucks. But now I understand how my grandparents were able to move on, their parents moved on and still be happy. They say that mid-life is one of the most unhappy points of a person’s life and I think with all the change along with just the stuff you have gone through just from living, it’s true. The flip side of that is that as people age past mid-life, they generally grow happier. I thought how could this be? But I think you grow and learn to appreciate the moment more. Each moment becomes more and more precious as your life quickly speeds past.

This year we started even more new traditions to keep our family close. First we had a Christmas Craft day where we did different crafts to help decorated cheaply for the holidays. I’m not a crafter so I rarely do this kind of thing since the girls have grown up. But it was so much fun as it was like when I used to do little projects with them as kids and we laughed so much. Then a few weeks later, we had our first official cookie baking day. Now I see why families do these kinds of activities as it’s a way to recapture the joy of having your kids around and doing what made you happy years ago. Just because the nest empties, doesn’t mean you can’t sit down and decorate sugar cookies with your kids anymore, it just means that the decorating might be more R rated than G now. Well, at least in my family where we all have a crazy sense of humor.

Life changes, you lose people your love, your kids grow up and move out and you get older but there are many beautiful things as well. There are the memories of holidays with my mom and the appreciation today of how our holidays have gone from complicated and exhausting to simple. That my kids can actually cut out and bake their own cookies, so I’m not exhausted by the end of cookie baking day. Where we can relate on a much different level, like friends, where it’s more fun anyway than telling them quit eating the icing. I seriously don’t miss fighting with them over things. I don’t miss them being little. One day, maybe I will have grandchildren but like my mom said the beauty of grandkids is you can spoil them and send them home. I can see where she is coming from even though I’m not a grandmother.

My Christmas Eve has been quiet and relaxing with a hike thrown in this afternoon. Ten years ago, it was always a frantic mess of wrapping presents, trying to do as much cooking as possible among tripping over a bunch of bodies milling in and out. I’m looking forward to tomorrow as I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to rush through cooking, last minute present wrapping, etc. I’ve had the presents wrapped for a week. I have been spreading out the cooking the last few days. We have simplified our holiday menus, picking dishes that are easy to prepare rather than having more food than anyone could ever eat. Probably a leftover from when women stayed home and were graded on their homemaking skills. Now we’re out working and we don’t have time to make 3 kinds of cranberries. I get to pick how I want to do the day. There is no pressure. I wouldn’t care of my kids came over in the pajamas… None of that stuff ever mattered anyway. Being together matters.

I hope others who are grieving find some peace tonight and tomorrow, well, every day. As close as I was to my mother, I never thought I would really enjoy a holiday again. But I’m pleasantly surprised this year that I actually am looking forward to Christmas as is my daughters. Not that I haven’t had sad moments of missing my mom. They just are less frequent and intense. A relief from the past four years. Life changes, have faith that one day you will feel more peace. I don’t know when, but it happens.

Wishing you a very blessed Christmas (or your holiday celebration of choice) and a wonderful new year full of fun, love and laughter. Yes, there’s going to be some crappy stuff, but in between, I pray you find peace, love and joy. Bring on 2018!

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No Longer Running….

For years when my girls were in school, every spring break, we would spend a week usually around Easter in a cabin in Tennessee with my mom.  When I was a kid, we lived in Knoxville for a while so many times this felt like a homecoming.  I love the mountains and desperately wanted to move back.  LIfe would be so much better there than in Ohio.  This held true for other areas I would vacation to that caught my fancy.  Oh how much better life would be if I could just live in a place like this, start over and start fresh.

Then last May we took the girls for their respective college and high school graduations for a week in a big cabin outside of Cosby, Tennessee.  It was a place I would have sat on the porch and dreamed about owning such a place like this especially since this cabin was out of the tourist trap areas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  But I realized my connection to such a place had faded.  While I could do yoga on the porch overlooking the smoky foothills, it no longer moved me to feel as if this was where I belonged.  I was strangely blasé about the scenery.  Unattached.

This has happened at several places this past year that we spent a long weekend in, I no longer felt compelled to look at job ads nor did I pick up the free real estate publications that are everywhere trying to entice people to buy.  I simply enjoyed our time there and looked forward to going home.  This last time was Lexington, Kentucky, which is where we got married.  This is one of my favorite cities and area.  Gentle rolling hills, beautiful farms, friendly people and just enough of a touch of the South to make me feel at home as my accent from childhood slowly starts to creep back into my voice.  I could be happy in Lexington for certain.  But after two weekends away from home, I found myself restless to go back to Ohio, to my home, to my life.  Rather than running from it.

Pondering this thought on the drive back from Lexington, I realized my life had changed right where I have been for the last seventeen years.  Other than moving from one house to another, I have been at the same job, the same house (15 years), the same town, the same state and so on for all these years.  Many of those earlier years had been miserable and were at the height of the times where I wanted to escape, move to Tennessee or where ever peaked my interest at the time.  Escape.  Running away.  That is what I was trying to do.  Rather than finding happiness within myself and creating it in my life, I thought the solution was to go somewhere, anywhere.  However, now that I look back, if I had moved in my mid-30’s, the same husband and the same personal issues would have followed me.  I would have been just as miserable there, the only difference is I would have been admiring mountains rather than softly rolling landscape just south of me in Ohio.

Once I created a life for myself right where I was planted for the last 17 years, then my need to run and escape disappeared.  My desire to move has vanished as if part of a magic act.  The secret wasn’t starting over somewhere else but creating the life I wanted right where I stood.  It’s a bit like believing if you lose all that weight, that your life will be completely different and happy only to find out that it’s pretty much the same except you are just smaller.  Not to say that maybe your dream job isn’t somewhere else and you would have to move for it to make yourself happy, there is that scenario.

I think the peace of the mountains and these other beautiful areas called to me because my life back then was in such dissarray.  That was the calling, the pull.  And of course when you go on vacation somewhere, you start thinking that oh, life could be really good here.  Except that you will still have to work, still be married to the same person, still be struggling with the same personal demons that you always did.  Until you work on those issues, it won’t matter if you live in paradise.  The beauty of this means, you don’t have to uproot your entire world to be happy, you have to focus on fixing yourself, your issues, make changes right where you stand to have a happier life.

As I thought this entire concept through, I realized it also comes down to choices we make.  Granted, life is going to throw some shit at you. There will be obstacles, challenges, tragedy, heart break as well as moments of beauty, laughter and joy.  That’s just the recipe of life.  But it is truly what you do with it that makes the difference.  You can let yourself be defeated by hard times or you can keep moving ahead, moving toward your ideal life.  There are so many things that ten years ago I thought would never happen for me, never be my life that are exactly that way today.

What I had to do was make some serious changes in my life which were very difficult as well as keep working on myself.  It’s easy to blame everything and everyone else, but truth is, I was always in charge of my own happiness.  I just had to grow a pair and do the hard work to get there.  But of course, you have to continue working at this, it is definitely a journey and not a destination.   And your choices in life really, truly affect you for years to come.  But the great thing is, you can take the next fork in the road and redirect your life.

I no longer want to run away from my life.  I am surprisingly content and happy in basically the same place I’ve always been.  I work at the same job, I live in the same house, I do many of the same things.  However, what I did do was divorce a toxic, abusive spouse, got more counseling, married a wonderful man, paid off most of my debt (this was a major key to happiness for me) and changed my outlook, my attitude and stopped being a big old victim.  I’m still working on myself.  Still striving for what I want in life but I am in a lot better place than I was 7 years ago today.  That life seems like a bad dream.

Like the saying goes.  Bloom where you are planted.

My Happiness Theory…

I was thinking last night about a time that I can remember really being happy and blissful almost for an extended period of time.  I was 18/19 years old, in the time before I met my first husband Memorial Day weekend years ago.  Of course, I didn’t have the responsibilities and challenges that I do today.  There is just something about being a responsible adult that seems to spoil your fun a bit and steals away that carefree feeling.  You have a career, mortgage, bills, payments, kids, aging parents, health issues, repairs, maintenance, and the list goes on and on.  You have fleeting moments of that carefree bliss, like when I married my husband in a fairy tale ceremony at an antebellum mansion in Lexington, Kentucky, but it wasn’t long until life came rushing back and crowded out the bliss with responsibilities, drama, annoyances, irritations and crises that seem to happen on a daily basis.

As I laid there staring at the white ceiling, I thought to myself but I have a good life!  Why do I feel so frazzled all the time?  I have so many blessings, I’m grateful for all that I have.  I’m financially secure with a good job, great co-workers/work family, my daughters are all healthy and doing well, my husband is great and and I’m fortunate to have a great network of extended family and friends.  I can do more now than I ever could before when I was younger and I have more opportunities.  While I am truly grateful, I do not have that carefree, happy, blissful feeling I once did.  Why not? I asked myself this question and started listed all the annoyances in my life.  The list kept growing so I finally decided to stop myself.

There are always those people who are trying to steal your happiness. Or are they?  In truth, I let them steal my happiness and I give them too much power in my life.  There is always something going on, some stressor.  Something breaks, something won’t work, something doesn’t go my way.  How much of this can I truly control?  Very little usually. Most of this is out of my power, my locus of control but I am far from helpless. I may not be able to control what happens to me or around me but I do have more control than I think.

So I realized that I have a choice.  I can let all these little annoyances and even big crises steal my happiness or I can let it go and just be happy, content and serene.  It all comes down to how I react to each day’s challenges.  I can react negatively or I can preserve my peace and surround myself in happiness.  This won’t work for every situation and it is not like I won’t have reasons to be sad, angry or hurt but how many times do I react when I could just take a deep breath and make the conscious decision that whatever this bump in the road is, do I react by getting upset?  Or do I just let it roll off my back and go on ignoring it to preserve a peaceful bliss?

I think that is truly up to me.  I’m going to try an experiment this next week and consciously choose to be happy.  I figure what do I have to lose right?  Maybe I will recapture my carefree bliss if I don’t let every wind spin me around into a negative cloud.  It’s in my own power to recapture being carefree, happy and blissful. It all comes down to my attitude and my outlook. I truly believe this.

Check back next week, I’ll update you on my progress.  Namaste.