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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Songs and Memories, Looking Back, Looking Forward

The other day, I was going through the local drive thru to pick up a salad for my lunch and a song I hadn’t heard in many years was playing on the classic rock station in my truck.  Fly to the Angels by the 80’s/90’s hair band, Slaughter.  You know how when you hear a song, those old memories just flood back and it’s hard to get it out of your mind?  I downloaded the song and let it play at a low volume on repeat while I worked the rest of the afternoon just letting the memories and the old feelings just wash over me.

I’m not particularly nostalgic and I’m not one to live in the past but I like to analyze how I felt then and sometimes the wrong turns or seemingly wrong turns I took.  The one thing I felt was that I missed the freedom, that life felt like it held all possibilities, my wild self, the hope and endless dreams before life kicked the shit out of me.  Before I had a mortgage, kids, responsibilities outside of myself when I lived for myself.  Everything was in front of me, the tragedies of life hadn’t beat me down.  I was envious of my young self.  To feel anything is possible.

Then I thought about it for a while, what was really different?  Yes I was tied down a bit more, not as easy to just pick up and move or run away with the circus but I really have more resources than I did then.  Most anything is possible, though my age does preclude me from a few things but really only a few.  My kids are grown for the most part, I am not really taking care of someone all the time so really I’m back at square one to a point.  I’m not far from those days.  I’m a quarter century older than when I first heard that song, twenty-five years wiser and I’ve raised my family already.  Again I am almost as free as I was back then as I was living on my own, supporting myself just as I am now.  I do have a few more responsibilities, but really not many more.

It dawned on me that I am in no different place than I was when that song first became popular other than I’ve lived a chunk of my life, raised my girls and been married three times.  I’ve packed a lot of living in that quarter century but I still have all my life ahead of me, albeit a bit shorter but our life is always before us until there is no more life.  Freedom, hope, dreams are all a mindset.  As we grow older, we forget how to dream, we start being more cautious especially when we become parents.  We start having more sense, we become grown ups, adults.  Except in my heart I’m still this wild, adventurous and fearless kid.  Then I realize, I can still be that wild, adventurous and fearless kid.  But I don’t have to stop being who I am because I’m an adult.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in being spouses, partners, parents, employees, caretakers, friends and lovers that we forget to see that anything is possible, no matter how old you are.  All the time I am reading Facebook articles reposted about senior citizens performing feats like gymnastics that we assume are impossible.  If those “elderly’ people believed that they couldn’t do things because of their age, then they would never try.  How many things do we not do because we tell ourselves we can’t, we shouldn’t, or we are too old, too fat, too poor, not good enough or whatever other else we can dream up to stop us from experiencing life to  the fullest or chasing our dreams?  I know I am very guilty of this.

I almost didn’t write this blog be because I thought people would think I’m stupid but I’ve only received positive feedback so far.  Sometimes taking a risk feels like standing naked in front of a room full of people but this is also where you can find the best rewards.  And sometimes the hardest failures.  The only true failure though, is not trying at all.

It truly is all in your mind.  Everyone is going to have limitations, obstacles and challenges.  My opportunities and possibilities are endless just as they were twenty-five years ago.  It’s all in my mindset.  It’s all in how I choose to see the world.  I may be a bit more jaded, hit by life but I can still dream just as I did when I was younger.  And so what if I listen to this old song over and over, I’m using my headphones, dammit!

Darkest Before the Dawn….

This past weekend, I had a few days where I felt really severely depressed.  Might have been due to hormones, latent grief, clinical depression or the fact that winter never ends in Ohio.  Or all of the above.  Worried that my depression had sunk to a point that I could not combat it with my usual exercise and taking care of myself approach, I visited my family doctor who prescribed Zoloft which I had taken back when I was 35 and finally realized what I had been feeling all that time, had been depression.  I picked up the prescription and took half of the first dose.  For the first week, you break the pills in half to see if you can tolerate the medication.

The next morning, I could barely get out of bed, my head was killing me, I felt nauseous and like a zombie.  I did not tolerate the medication very well at all and I hated how I felt.  Finally about one o’clock in the afternoon, I finally started feeling myself again though it took a good two days to completely get rid of that fuzzy feeling.  My husband and I had been talking about my depression and grief.  I had been telling him that I couldn’t understand why I was having such a hard time with the loss of my mother after almost a year.  Some days, it was more than I could bear.  My husband pointed out that because of the close nature of our relationship over the years, which included me working with her for fourteen of those years, that I not only lost a parent but it was almost as if I lost a spouse and child in some ways.  That I wouldn’t just get over it just like that.  

When I thought about this concept, it makes sense.  For some reason, just understanding why I am going through something that doesn’t make sense to me, helps me deal with it better.  Maybe it is the fear of the unknown or fear that I’m going to fall apart.  Once I really grasped that idea, that my relationship with my mom was very complicated and complex, that I had much more to mourn than just a parent, the dark heavy clouds that were suffocating me, lifted and I saw the sunshine again.  I realize, I do not want to take those antidepressants if they make me feel so awful.  So many times, we take pills to “fix” things when it is within our own power to “fix” them ourseleves.  Not that I’m advocating chucking your prescriptions, that all medicine is bad, it’s just sometimes, we want the easy out.  The quick solution and for me, though my depression had spiraled down to a worrisome level, I just needed to understand what I was truly dealing with rather than being afraid there was something inherently wrong with me.  

As they saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn.  Keep the faith, keep searching and keep hope close.