A lot of people have said that the second year after the loss of their spouse was worse than the first. In some ways, that has been true. Some of the numbness of the first year has worn off. The reality of one’s ‘new life’ is really setting in. So I really dreaded the protracted holiday season that seems to run from Halloween to New Years. I am pleased to say that I have made it most of the way through the gauntlet at this point. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I remember so many years when I savored every holiday. It was always fun to get together with family and friends, to see the lights and store windows, to plan for events. To shop for presents, to bake, plan elaborate meals, to decorate. We started with Halloween, decorating early in October and whenever the weather allowed, staying on the front porch for hours enjoying trick or treaters, then had a big Thanksgiving celebration and on it went up to New Years.
The first year that Jovito and I were married, I painted an entire nativity set complete with the Holy Family, shepherds and sheep, magi and their camels and servants and one angel. I made a Christmas tree skirt that I am still using this year. I made several dozen Christmas cookies and we gave tins to family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Our apartment was decorated, we had a huge Christmas tree loaded with ornaments. We added to those ornaments every year, many from travels. In subsequent years I began to host Thanksgiving dinner and often either Christmas Eve or Christmas as well. We usually had a large New Year’s Eve party because we found it more fun to do that than to go out. The holidays were busy and fun.
The year my mother died, I found it hard to get into the spirit of the season. Jovito did most of the work of putting up the Christmas tree and decorating that year, but we shopped together because our daughter was just three and deserved a nice holiday. After a few years, I began to enjoy the holidays again. Many years I took off the whole Thanksgiving week so that I could clean and prep and cook for days. Although our house is not large, we always liked to have it packed full of people.
Last year, after Jovito passed away, it was again hard to get into the spirit of the season. I was glad to be invited to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving. I remember how odd it felt to do the preparation for the one dish that I was bringing then get in the car alone to drive there. The day was nice, but I really missed Jovito. He loved to be with the family, he teased all the nieces and nephews, sneaked treats to the dogs under the table, and always had some good jokes to share. And it was always fun to talk about the party on the way home.
Christmas and New Years last year were rather grim. In the early part of December I had an Emergency Room visit and spent about a week fairly sick. Then I had a tooth pulled just a week before and it was just healing so I could only eat soft food.
But in the end that all turned out to be pretty unimportant. The thing that was really devastating was that my daughter experienced what we thought was a miscarriage, which would have been difficult enough. But it turned out to be a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. She was in the hospital on New Year’s Eve, had a procedure on New Year’s Day, and was hospitalized for the first week of 2019. It was an incredibly frightening time; and once it became clear that she was going to be ok, it was a very sad time. We had all hoped to see 2019 start off well so that we could begin to put 2018 behind us. That wasn’t our reality.
I remember not long after Jovito passed away, my pastor told me that after great grief, her experience had been that the second year was a little better. She said that she found it comforting to look back and be able to say ‘last year at this time I felt worse than I do now’. I thought of that comment often during the holidays last year; I hoped that I would experience the same thing. It gave me some small amount of hope. I realized this year that indeed, I shared her experience. I still have a long way to go in the healing process; but I do take comfort in looking back and being able to say ‘last year at this time I felt worse than I do now’.
I allowed myself a little more freedom to do things the way I wanted to this year. I decorated less, I shopped less, I baked less; I spent more time reading Advent materials and scripture, attending special Advent events. My daughter and son-in-law got me a smaller tree that I could put up and take down without help. Instead of frantic holiday preparations, I took time for things that were relaxing and spiritually nourishing: attended my book club, participated in a four week Advent study and several other special advent events. I hosted a wine tasting party, had lunch with a friend, went to dinner and a movie with another friend, attended a night of drag bingo for yet another friend’s 70th birthday.
On Christmas Eve I went to a candlelight service then came home and watched some of the holiday classic movies with Guac and Arby (my dog and and my daughter’s dog). They are great companions!
Christmas Day turned out to be nearly 60 degrees, which is the second warmest Christmas on record in Chicago. Instead of going out, I stayed home. I took the dogs for three walks and we spent most of the afternoon in the yard. I got the grill and air conditioner covered for the winter, which has been on my to-do list for many weeks. I made a fruit cake. (Mine is WAY better than the store-bought varieties that everyone hates.) And we watched more holiday movies.
Keeping the holidays lower key and doing things differently than I had in the past relieved some of the stress and anxiety. Instead of trying to recreate holidays ‘the way they used to be’, I simply took a little break. I am reminded of the book ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Strangely enough, that is a book that has been important to me; I reread it every few years and still find meaning. Ideologically it is far to the right of where I am. But still, there is a lot of wisdom that speaks to me. A passage that has stayed with me over the years is:
“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders – What would you tell him?”
I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”
Last year, I really stayed blindly on the same path that I had always followed in the past. I thought that the best approach would be to continue with the traditions I have loved in hopes of reclaiming them. This year, I gave myself the freedom to shrug. Just a little shrug, but it has helped. Perhaps next year I will be ready to reclaim some of the old traditions. Or maybe not. We will see.