Grief is Funny That Way

Grieving over mom during the holidays

My Mom’s birthday is tomorrow and this is the fourth birthday of hers since she passed away. Each year it does get easier, but it still stings mightily. The thing that has changed is that now I am ready for it and expecting it.

Her birthday comes six days before Christmas so all this grief has been tied up to the holidays for a while now. Because of that, I don’t look forward to the holiday season like I used to. I white-knuckle it, hold it together, manage it and get through it, but I don’t necessarily love it. The only problem with that is the four kids I have who do love Christmas. If it were up to me, we’d skip the whole damn thing and go someplace warm and make entirely new traditions, involving sand or skis. But as my husband reminded me as he dragged the Christmas boxes down from the attic while I moaned and groaned in the background, “we’re doing this for them!”

Navigating grief through the holidays while parenting is like being the head stewardess on a flight that is experiencing great turbulence. Your job is to smile, pretend everything is okay — and will be okay — for the passengers. It’s all “please fasten your seatbelt, everyone, we’re experiencing some slight turbulence,” while inside you’re screaming, “HOLY CRAP WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” But smile you must, taking care of all the passengers, making sure they’re safe and their seats and trays are upright and in a locked position, all the while wishing you could freak out yourself. But when you have kids watching you, you hold it together, you hold it in.

The best way I can describe grief is it’s like a nosebleed: it can appear out of nowhere, at the most inconvenient times and catches you unawares. I remember my Mom’s birthday three years ago, when I thought I was doing okay. Great, even! I had made it through her first birthday without her and thought the worst was behind me. Ha! Hahahaha. That’s not how it actually works.

I remember when a grief therapist I was seeing told me that it’s the second year without your loved one that is the hardest. She said it was because that’s when you realize the permanence of the situation. That didn’t resonate with me and I didn’t believe her. During my Mom’s illness, I understood what permanent situation we were hurtling towards; there was no part of me confused about that or in denial. I think that well-meaning therapist just put it in the wrong terms for me. If I were to explain it to someone experiencing recent loss, I would out it more like this:

You know how when there’s been an ice storm, or freezing snow? You walk very gingerly, using tiny steps so you don’t wipe out on the black ice that you just know is hiding under the frost. Attending college in the Midwest, our quad muscles would be so sore and aching at end of every winter day from walking slowly and deliberately all around campus, bracing for every slick step. That’s the first year: you brace yourself, you take extra care and therefore, you don’t wipe out.

I was so smart during that first year without my Mom! I knew how awful it was, so I practiced Extreme Self-Care: I did my yoga, ate healthily, saw a therapist, booked sitters for alone time away from my little kids. I gave myself the gift of grieving and grace, didn’t push it.

Then, as you approach the dreaded one-year anniversary with all its bad memories of the illness, the traumas, the very difficult end, the family infighting…the milestone that has been looming all year, well suddenly, it passes. And you breath a sigh of relief: you made it through! (See above: Ha! Hahaha.) So you tell your grief therapist you’re good, you don’t need any more appointments. You stop juicing every day because really, what a pain in the neck that is and who needs all those vegetables anyway? You resume your normal pace of life. In fact, you begin to push it the second year — to make up for all the lost time of the past few years when you were completely consumed with illness, dying and death. You’re back, baby!

That second year is when you don’t realize there’s black ice hiding right under the frosty surface. And then, your foot catches that slick, hidden black ice and you wipe out. I mean, you really buy the farm: your feet go out from under you, you fly up in the air and you land full force on your ass. I wish my therapist had explained it like that instead of the bullshit concept of not understanding the permanence of death, and then maybe I would’ve listened.

Which brings me back to my Mom’s birthday three years ago. My Mom was the music director at our church growing up and she taught me to play my violin alongside her at Mass. I knew every single church hymn, every refrain, every liturgical musical season. So every piece reminded me of her and church became too painful. It sucked, so I avoided Mass. I mean, who needs religion when you’re suffering, right? Ha! Hahaha. Problem was, our kids were at the Catholic school and I couldn’t avoid going to their special school Masses, like the one being held on her birthday.

One of our kids had a speaking part in it and so my husband and I had to go. He needed to make a work call first so I went up ahead with our toddler to get our seats. No problem, everything was fine! Yes, it was my Mom’s birthday, but really, I was fine! Then the music started. And that’s when the “nosebleed” started.

I have never actually had a nosebleed, but I imagine it’s like what happens when suddenly, you start crying and you just can’t stop. You’re shocked at first, then, horrified. I dug my fingernails into my palms to try and hold back the tears that sprang up from nowhere. But this song! We always played it together! And, oh no, I had makeup on: the tears were running, my nose was running, and my mascara was running. I searched my pockets, my purse…no tissues.

No problem, I’ll just hide behind my curtain of hair. I didn’t want all the other parents who were packing the church to see me losing my marbles like this so I ducked my head down and let my hair hang forward while the tears, snot and mascara ran down my face and I “ugly cried” in public.

My daughter, about three at the time, loved going to these school masses because she could catch a glimpse of her older siblings and wave to them, or if she was especially spicy that day, shout, “HELLO! HI! HI! HELLO! I SEE YOU!” at the top of her lungs. Well, this fabulous day, she didn’t see any of her sibling, but apparently, she did see the biggest nose that she had every seen in her little life. And so that’s what she started to yell about instead.

“OH MY GOSH, MOMMY! LOOK AT THAT LADY’S NOSE! IT’S SO BIG! WHY IS IT SO BIG, MOMMY?”

I hushed her, hissing, “stop it, shhh, be quiet!” in between my sobbing. But she would have none of it. She was fascinated and obsessed with this nose on another parent’s face and she would not be denied.

“DO YOU SEE HER, MOMMY? WHO IS SHE? WHY IS HER NOSE THAT BIG? LOOK AT IT!” She was pointing now.

Heads were turning to us. Then eyes would widen when they saw my face. Then heads would turn to try and figure out who in the hell had the big nose?

Oh God, I prayed, make this stop.

I heard rustling beside me and looked up to see my husband entering our pew, finished with his work call. He looked at my face, which I’m pretty sure was now in the “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane” territory and gasped.

Then our daughter saw him and shouted, “DADDY!! YOU’RE HERE! LOOK AT THAT LADY’S NOSE! IT’S THE BIGGEST NOSE IN THE WHOLE WORLD! DO YOU SEE IT? RIGHT OVER THERE!”

I heard him mutter, “what the hell?” as he fished out clean tissues from his coat pocket, handed them to me and simultaneously took our daughter in his arms and then onto his lap as he sat down and shushed her, while also effectively blocking my Crazy Crying Face from the view of the entire congregation.

The best thing about my husband (other than always, always having clean tissues in his pocket while I was on this rollercoaster of grief) was that he never asked, “Why are you crying?” or “What happened?” He knew grief doesn’t work like that or even answer to those questions. It just is. Like a nosebleed. You don’t ask someone, “Why is your nose bleeding?” You just hand them a tissue and help clean them up while you pat their back.

When you are missing someone you love or grieving in other ways (divorce, family estrangement, illness, job loss), the holidays are tough. They are tough in the way damp weather is tough for old army injuries. Imagine a battle-worn, old soldier saying, “Ach, this damn weather makes my trick knee and back act up. Every damn time. Oof, I can’t get out there today, I’m gonna need to just sit a bit and read the paper till it stops aching and acting up.”

When you’re grieving, your holidays are always cold and damp and your tricky back and knee always act up. The pain does get less and less — I am proof of that. Plus, you just learn to expect it and take some extra Advil and keep that heating pad nearby.

Aside from the passage of time, the only thing that ever made me feel better when the grief was awful was reaching out to help someone else. Nothing helped me feel better than saying to someone else in this similar type of grief or pain, “I understand. I get it. How can I help you?” I love that I can offer them my understanding and compassion. Truly, what a great gift grief has given me. Unexpected and unasked for, yes, but great nonetheless.

Reaching out to someone else who has experienced loss to let them know I’m thinking about them, or helping a friend who has a sick family member, or playing my violin at the nursing home: that lifted the cloud of grief for me. I was doing something I knew my Mom would do, as she was the kindest and most giving person I’ve ever known. I knew it would make her proud, it felt good to emulate her and it made me feel closer to her, too.

So if you’re reading this and hurting with grief this holiday season, I want you to know…I understand. I get it. How can I help you?

Happy birthday, Mom, I miss you like crazy.

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