Tag Archives: Christmas

How to Survive the Holidays as a Grieving Person


1. Our dead are gone, and they are everywhere. They are absent, ever-present, the way some people talk about God.

2. Our dead come back. Again and again. When we least expect them, they shout, “Surprise!” For example, I lost all my mother’s recipes after she died. Barely 21, I couldn’t imagine living without her, much less becoming a person with her own kitchen and recipes one day. And yet, this year, I found a Taste of Home recipe that replicates a chocolate pizza my mother served at our Hanukkah Party each year. Melted down chocolate chips form the pizza’s crust. Cheese comes from dried flaked coconut. Melted maraschino cherries serve as pepperoni. I’ve decided to serve this dessert during my family’s Hanukkah celebration this year. When I place my own chocolate pizza on the dining room table, I suspect I’ll feel like my mother has returned to me once more, a most welcome and unexpected guest.

3. Headphones. I don’t know what I would have done without them the summer after my mother died, when I moved abroad to work at a newspaper in a country I barely knew. Each day, I’d walk from the flat where I stayed in Dennistoun, to the newspaper in the Glasgow City Centre, where I worked. The Cure sang me forward. I believed every song on one particularly tortured album was written just for me. With headphones on, I tuned into myself and a pain that might instruct me, if I learned how to listen.

4. Now I use headphones to tune out the nonstop Christmas anthems that play everywhere this time of year. I cannot bear the public performance of joy. There is no right way to be happy, just as there is no right way to be sad. Our memories bring comfort, and they bring knee-deep sorrow. Headphones help me tune out the less helpful noises of this season, help me quiet the expectation that happiness comes easily to us all, that happiness isn’t the battlefield of my life.

5. A path lit by joy and sorrow runs down the center of my heart. How bright, how beautiful. How lucky I have been.

6. When I am feeling at my worst, I remember I dared to love after I lost the person I loved most in the world. I do not believe in god or heaven or clear categories of afterlife. But I believe in salvation. I believe love saved me, just as love will save you.

7. Get out of town, if you can. Take a road trip, a flight, a ride on a boat. Make new memories, memories that are yours alone to cherish. After my mother died, a friend told me, “Life goes on.” She wasn’t trying to silence my grief. And she meant what she said. My life would continue beyond the point where my mother’s life stopped. I had to stand up and walk toward her death, walk past my grief, and understand there would never be a point where I surpassed my grief. But I could walk along side this unbearable loss, make grief my companion on a journey I barely understood, a journey that is mine alone to understand.

8. I chose to travel because I was young and could sleep in a closet and live on potato chips and candy bars. So I left my mother’s house. I left my country. I met my life for the first time. I cried every day, and I ate a lot of potato chips and candy bars. I gained ten pounds. I fell in love. I grew big with wonder and joy. I started to live the life my mother wanted for herself, which became the life I chose, and the life she wanted for me.

9. I am not religious anymore. But my favorite prayer is the V’ahavta. It literally means, “and you shall love.” When I was a little girl, I used to wait for this prayer during the Shabbat service. We sang those words over and over again, “and you shall love.” They are the only commandment I’ve kept from Judaism, the only prayer I remember and return to. These ancient words remind me that loss hurts in direct proportion to how greatly we have loved.

10. Even after I gave away all her clothes and scattered her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, my mother’s love refused to leave me. The longer I live without her, the more powerfully I feel her love. It’s there when I wake up each morning and kiss my husband. It’s there when I write, when I listen to a friend in the midst of a struggle. It’s there when I refuse to lose my shit at my horribly behaved dog or a student who needs a second chance. And you shall love. My mother’s voice rises up in my memory, as fervent as the prayer I once chanted. Dead, she is everywhere, an ineffable god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bette Ellen’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 14 oz. Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

  • Line an 8 or 9-inch pan with foil or waxed paper.
  • Combine chocolate chips with sweetened condensed milk in a medium, heavy duty sauce pan.
  • Warm over lowest possible heat, stirring constantly until smooth.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Stir in nuts and vanilla extract.
  • Spread evenly into prepared baking pan.
  • Refrigerate for two hours or until firm. (Overnight works best).
  • Lift from pan.
  • Remove foil/wax paper.
  • Cut into perfect squares.

Some notes: 

I cut each chocolate square precisely — no errant rectangles! — and think of how I want to find you on the front porch of your girlhood home on South Sanborn in Mitchell, or in the sepia eyes of your grandfather, who built that house and carved its staircase by hand. But I haven’t made it out to South Dakota yet. It seems so far to go, and I am afraid of what I might find, and what it means to accept you as part of me. Instead, I look for you in Nestle chocolate chips melding with Eagle brand condensed milk on my stove, as if I’m working a conjuring spell. If only I could get the recipe right, I might resurrect you. If only I could find the metaphor in the melting.

But what I’m trying to say is less about food as a window to memory, and more about the irony of what I’m doing before I fold in walnuts and a dash of vanilla. We didn’t really know each other, you and I. I can never say my grandmother stood with me beside a stove and said, “Here’s how you make fudge.” Not that this labor should have been your job. And yet I want so badly for an alternate narrative of our family to exist. I can’t stop my heart from wanting what it wants, my embarrassing hunger for clichés

So forgive me if I don’t yet have the perfect word for what I’m doing in my kitchen this morning, not so much cooking as stirring the pot.

IMG_5384
The kitchen counter where my grandmother Bette (pictured on this mug) would have made her beloved fudge. Grateful to her daughter Monica for allowing me to take this photo and sharing stories of her mother, so I might know her now.

We Want to Wish You a Merry Chrismukkah

I came downstairs the other morning to find our Hanukkiah sitting on the living room floor, beside Carl’s work backpack.

How sweet, I thought. He’s getting our Hanukkah decorations out to make sure my holiday doesn’t get dwarfed by Christmas. This has been our routine for a few years. I go crazy making sure all his grandmother’s hand-tatted angels find their way onto our Christmas tree branches. He counts the Hanukkah candles leftover from last year, then orders enough from Amazon to last us through the whole eight nights.

Turns out, I was half right.

Carl retrieved our Hanukkiah for our use, but also to light during the Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian congregation where he serves as minister. For the first time since 1978, the first night of Hanukkah intersects with Christmas Eve.

Most families might not notice this cosmic coincidence, determined by a lunar cycle that means Gregorian dates for Jewish holidays shift yearly. In our family, we can’t help but notice. Carl grew up celebrating Christmas. I celebrated Hanukkah. When we married at my family’s synagogue more than nine years ago, we chose Judaism as the dominant religion in our home.

As if the Judeo-Christian complexity of our December holidays weren’t enough, there’s also the minister issue. This is arguably the busiest time of Carl’s professional year, although he might disagree. All I know is that on Dec. 24, he’s officiating at a wedding, followed by two Christmas Eve services.

He’ll be back at his pulpit by 10 a.m. on Christmas Day, a time when most normal people are unwrapping presents or eating breakfast casseroles. This means we will not eat Christmas Eve dinner together, nor will we have time to unwrap presents on Christmas morning, as we have done for the entire twelve years we’ve been a couple.

On Christmas Day, we’re hosting a lunch for his mother, my sister, her husband, and their three kids, all of whom keep kosher. I will be cooking for hours beginning Friday night. As I peel two pounds of grapes for Carl’s grandmother’s fruit salad recipe, I will no doubt be channeling my Bubbie Fran: Eat. Eat. Eat. This is appropriate because Jews will outnumber Christians by 3 to 1 at our holiday table.

I would be lying if I wrote that I felt at peace this holiday season. The darkest time of year is hard on us. But I’m trying not to get swept up in the holiday crazy, to become aware when I feel consumerism’s pull. Sometimes I get it right. The other day, when a man honked at me near Walgreens, I flipped him a peace sign.

Still, I truly lost it earlier this week when a large package arrived for Carl. He’d ordered himself the exact same monastery made meditation cushion I’d purchased for his Christmas gift. This means it’s Dec. 22, his mother’s flight arrives tonight, and I still don’t know what I’m getting the man who wants nothing for Christmas. (Lump of coal? Lump of coal?)

Still, it’s amazing to me that I even have money to purchase holiday gifts. I grew up in a family where money was scarce, and sometimes I didn’t know if I would receive presents on Hanukkah. They were always small gifts, always something I needed. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I wish I’d cherished everything my mother ever gave me.

Now my mother-in-law lavishes me with gifts, which she wraps in Hanukkah paper. She spoils me beyond words, and I appreciate her consciousness at a time when it’s 100 percent more likely that the receipt checker at Costco will wish me a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Hanukkah” or miracle-of-miracles Chanukah sameach.

My mother-in-law still lives in the small South Carolina community where she took her son to a big steeple Baptist church a few times a week. Where she finds Hanukkah wrapping paper, I will never know. I do know that I’ll be making her and Carl blueberry blintzes for breakfast on Christmas Day, before they scurry off to church. (Thanks, Bubbie Fran.)

I also know we create refuge by sharing in each other’s traditions, rather than foisting traditions on each other.  I still do not know how to live without shouldering other people’s expectations. But that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting the Dead in Dreamland

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung

I woke up at 3 a.m. from a nightmare that my sister’s infant son had gone missing. It was a terrifying dream, full of caves, masked men, and all consuming darkness. In the dream, we never found the baby, but I searched for him until I awoke to heart palpitations. Then I couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind wandered to the worst, worst case scenarios I could imagine, to the kinds of unfathomable losses that no one ever wants to think about. The kind that I cannot even bring myself to write.

You see, I’m afraid if I write them down, I will make them real.

The thing about surviving an earth shattering loss is that it opens you up to the probability of future earth shattering losses. Nothing is safe. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Death traces a shadow across every good thing. Even happiness feels false. You learn to distrust joy. You learn to distrust peace. Life can feel like a never ending production of “Hamlet,” which (big surprise) is the play that formed the basis of my master’s thesis.

Before I did my MFA, I immersed myself in what is arguably the most depressing literary text ever written, a tragedy centering on two children maddened by grief. I was obsessed with Ophelia –– motherless, fatherless, suicidal Ophelia. I, too, was a little mad at this time. I was afraid of everything. Driving at night. Rain. Walking from my car to our house. Most of all, I was afraid of Carl’s death. I thought about it all the time. What would I do if he died? How would I cope?

I needed the answers to these questions because I needed to know I could survive beyond him. I read “Hamlet” and wrote about Ophelia for hours each week. Still, I wasn’t soothed. If Carl was late coming home, I convinced myself he’d been in a car accident. I’d call him repeatedly until he answered the phone –– perplexed, but patient. Sometimes, I’d awaken in the middle of the night just to check that he was still breathing. Sometimes I still do.

But, at a certain point, it’s reckless to allow fear to pollute the present. At a certain point we have to live our lives. At a certain point, “Hamlet” stops being fun and starts being a depressing tragedy that the students I now teach don’t want to read. So I started writing about my own grief, and about my mother.

On the page, I found I could resurrect her. I could bring us both back to life. I found a therapist who taught me how to recognize intrusive thoughts, and how to distinguish catastrophic thinking from reality. I recommitted myself to the meditation practice that has sustained me for the past decade. I found my way into an MFA program and kept writing my way back to my mother, which ultimately saved me.

Yet, death still haunts my dreams.

Last night’s dream was the second baby dream I’ve had in a week. The first dream goes like this: Carl and I awaken to cries coming from a back bedroom of our house. We find a boy –– presumably our son –– standing in a dark room. He’s wailing and holding tiny hooks in his hands, the kinds of hooks that we use to hang our Christmas tree ornaments. Given that we’re currently childless, I’m astounded to see this beautiful, blonde boy in our home. But removing the hooks from the boy’s hands feels like a life-or-death situation. I’m terrified he’ll swallow a hook. I’m only a mother for five seconds, and already I’m afraid of losing our son. Already, I’m thinking of all the seemingly innocuous things that can kill him.

In the dream, panic swept over me. It wasn’t an omygod I’m-not-ready-to-be-a-mother! kind of panic. It was an ohmygod my house is a death trap! kind of panic. And now I’ve had a second child loss dream.

Carl spent years studying Jungian dream work. He’s meditating right now, but If I interrupted him, he’d probably tell me that the lost child –– or the almost dead child –– stand for a hidden aspect of myself. Some buried subconscious fragment is breaking through to the surface. He’d say the panic connects with the difficult emotional work of knowing ourselves, of being truthful about who we are and what we want in life. There are no answers in dream work, only questions. But I think he’d also tell me that darkness cannot be separated from light, that facing the darkness is what makes us truly conscious.

I interpret the dreams from the edge of mother loss. A mother who loses a child never stops being a mother, but that implication is unavoidable, and it complicates the grief that mothers who lose children feel.

My grandmother lost two children. The first loss was her firstborn infant son, who died at four months. The second loss was my mother. She died on April 7. Three years later, my grandmother fell into a coma on that same day. She took her last breath on April 8.

I was with her when she died. I spent the entire day holding her hand, reading Rumi to her because his words felt like the only appropriate response. Watching her die made me less afraid of death, more open to the beauty that can arise from our most feared moments.

I read to her from “Say I Am You”: I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy, / the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, / and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t. The poem’s images focus on interconnection, on how we are all dust and sunlight and stars, on how everything that is alive comes from what is also dead.

One of the greatest gifts of my sister’s children is how they bring the dead back to life. My mother is dead, but she continues to live through this genealogy. My sister and I both resemble her, but I can’t see her features in us the same way I can see them in her grandchildren. My eldest nephew has her smile and sense of humor. My niece has her courage and strength. My dream child had her eyes. Even in the darkness, I could see them clear as day.