It seeps deep into the bones and may become easier to hide, but unprocessed grief doesn’t ever go away. It fills the pores in our bones until they are solid and heavy. If we could define its molecular structure, we might find it’s composed of Iridium, the second densest, naturally occurring metal. Iridium is rare at the Earth’s surface, but common in asteroids. As the Earth was bombarded by meteorites in its violent early history, the iridium sank to the center. There it remains, a part of the deepest layer, the core. In humans, perhaps when we are bombarded with loss, the heaviness of grief does the same.
The ache of loss radiates from that deep place and is felt most acutely during the holidays. Societal pressures to celebrate and be happy can feel impossibly demanding. Yet we can’t simply hide out for the last two months of the year. If we can recognize and stay with the opposing emotions that arise, grief can eventually transform our experience with loss.
People who have read my memoir know that after my sister Louise died, my older sister Mary was a life raft. She drew the family close and buoyed our spirits. We shared many holiday traditions – baking cookies, making decorations, and coloring pictures were some of my favorites.
I tried to continue those traditions after Mary’s death. As my four younger sisters got older, we crafted and decorated, and I even began throwing a Christmas eve party in my bedroom because I knew the holidays often made Mom sad. When my sisters had children, I invited them for sleepovers, where we baked and decorated, and the holidays were joyful again.
But as time has passed, and my nieces and nephews have grown, the traditions have once again fallen away and I’m left in solitude, to cut, glue, paint, hang, and sit quietly by the Christmas tree in the evening. I admire the way the lights sparkle and reflect off the glitter and tinfoil of handmade ornaments. It both tears at my heart and warms it. Indeed, grief has no statute of limitation. More than four decades later, feelings of loss and love attempt their dance together among the twinkling lights.
The biggest difference since writing the memoir is that now I understand the need to allow, and indeed honor, this dance of grief. To trace the foot patterns and feel the twirls and dips. Knowing that each move, each feeling, is temporary -- whether it’s love or deep sadness.
Respecting the dance, I have continued some traditions, let go of others, and made space for new ones. Each year I still make decorations and hold a family party, but when I bake, I invite friends to join me. I’ve started a new tradition of cooking dinner with Mom and Dad several times in November and December, and we all sit down to watch a holiday classic after the meal. I also visit Louise and Mary at the cemetery and leave a Christmas decoration for each of them.
Yet the persistent sense of loss hangs on the tree beside the ornaments, and it is still painful. For those suffering a more recent loss, that juxtaposition can seem unbearable. This holiday season, along with joy, and song and celebration, be sure to consider those who are suffering. In this world where the pandemic took so much from us -- people, routine, our sense of safety – be deliberate in taking the time and space to recognize your own suffering. For grief cannot be cured, but it can be held. It’s a weight that’s best carried with the support of others, while tending to a graceful balance of honoring the past and celebrating the present.
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