My mom died almost 18 years ago — an actual legal adult’s age stands between me and all the firsts that came with her death. Yet, I can still feel the discomfort that existed in my body during the first Christmas celebration in which I had to pick out my Sunday best for myself as an 11-year-old kid. I can still feel how the grief made it difficult to swallow, see, and breathe.
I feel remnants of that unique version of grief every holiday season. Being in my late twenties now hasn’t helped with getting rid of the aftertaste. What the distance between me and my first holidays without my mom has done for me is given me added perspective and a deep appreciation for making mistakes.
The only way to navigate through grief is by being okay at failing.
During that first holiday, I learned more about what I needed from what I didn’t have than from what the holiday did have. I come from a family who doesn’t speak openly of those who pass and year after year I realized that all I craved was being able to say my mom’s name—Delia—and that I missed her.
I wanted space, so as I got older I carved it out. Once I carved it, I realized that I made the mistake of believing that the space would magically heal me or instruct me or comfort me. Instead, what it did was teach me that I needed to do something (anything) with the space in order to make the holidays mean something to me again.
So, as I got older, I filled it. I filled it with so many things and so many traditions and so many tears that eventually I realized that it was the process of filling it that was actually making the difference, way more than anything I was filling it with.
At the heart of grief is an emptiness we all struggle to become acquainted with. If you’ve lost someone this year or you lost someone 27 years ago, you’re eternally on the path of becoming a trial-and-error expert and the holiday season is your 10k race. You know grief, loss, and the weight of your unique grieving process in ways no one else can or will. You know that sprinting will only make you more tired, but that resting on your laurels won’t make you feel any better. You know that days you expect to be hard may not be and that hard days can pop up unexpectedly.
Your expertise keeps you humble and reminds you that it’s okay that you can never really put your finger on what will work for your grief because grief is and will always be a chameleon.
After 17 holiday seasons without my mom, I wish that during that first one, someone would have told me that it’s okay if I don’t yet know what will make the season easier because there is not one single thing that ever will. Time provides the benefit of building a toolkit filled with options which, come the next holiday or the one after that, you can pull from based on the colors of your grief that year.
This year, it looks like settling into our new home, our first Christmas with our puppy, and two ornaments on our tree that remind me of my grandma and mom. There are so many unexpected moments with grief that I know I’ll come across this season, but I’m as confident as ever that the toolkit I have plus the tools I’ve yet to learn will help me navigate it the best I can.