When we look from a distance at someone who has suffered the death of a loved one, we usually think of that death as an event, a specific incident that happened at such-and-such date and time and place.
But no. That’s not how it works. Yes, there was a specific date when a dying happened. But a death — for those who have lost someone, a death knows no end.
Death is the absence of the one we love.
The dying — the beginning of that absence — occurs, and then the next moment happens, and the moment after that. The moments pile up over time and turn into days, and months, and years, and in every single one of those moments the one we love continues to be gone.
The one we love continues to be gone during the holiday season as well, of course. You know they won’t be here — and steel yourself for their absence during this family time of year. No matter how much you prepare yourself, though, anticipating how the holiday season will magnify the loss of the one you love, what you don’t see coming are the other losses that keep appearing.
What doesn’t hit you at first is that, when your loved one left this life, he or she dragged a whole lot more of your world through that crack than you could ever imagine. Over the days and months following the death, you inevitably find yourself tripping over holes as you discover yet another item or routine or tradition or symbol that’s now gone too, gone with that person.
These other losses aren’t limited to the end-of-year holidays — but think about all the traditions, routines, and symbols wrapped up in this season. At this time of year, there are so many more pieces of your old life that you now discover are lost, broken, or gone entirely.
A big family Thanksgiving dinner has been held at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for as far back as any of the kids can remember. Everyone comes in from all over the place. And this year, even though her children don’t want to burden her, Grandma insists that the tradition continue. “Just like always,” she says.
The big day arrives. You’re glad to be there, but you know that Grandpa’s absence is going to be the biggest presence in that old house. You hope you can hold it together.
Somehow Grandma yet again figures out how to finish all the food at the same time. The turkey comes out of the oven to sit and rest while the remainder of the food is set out on the table.
All the kids sit together at the end of the table, the rest of the family aligned along the sides. By unspoken consent, over the months of visits since Grandpa died, his seat at the head of the table has remained vacant. And so it is today. Even though that empty chair points to his absence all the more, no one feels it would be right to take his place.
The turkey is brought to the table, smelling heavenly. And then people start to look around at each other. Uneasy. A cough here. A chair scrape there. It dawns on the family that there’s only one way that this meal has ever been started, and that’s with Grandpa’s blessing. It wasn’t thought of until this very moment. It’s just a minute or two every year, but it had been woven into the fabric of all of their lives — and now they find that yet one more treasure has been lost forever.
One of the older adults finally fills in, but as the short, halting prayer is uttered, something else dawns on the family: Who will carve the turkey now? This is something else that Grandpa always took care of, with a flourish, with style. It’s not that others aren’t capable of carving. It’s just that everyone has watched Grandpa do it for so many years that, like his seat at the head of the table, it doesn’t feel right for anyone else to take it on.
You had prepared yourself for missing Grandpa through this long, difficult day, and you’ve done surprisingly well in holding it together. You were even okay as you looked sadly at that empty chair. But these two new surprising tears in the fabric of tradition — in your tradition, in the life of your family — threaten to undo you.
At the Highmark Caring Place, we spend time with grieving children, adolescents and families all year round. We hear about the holes formed when traditions or routines are broken or lost after someone in the family dies. Because the holiday season is so full of traditions, we know that even more of those holes appear around the holidays, making an already hard time even harder.
Whether a death occurred a few weeks ago or years ago, the holidays can sometimes feel like a minefield — you don’t know what loss you’ll stumble across next. Besides these surprises, there’s the contrast you can’t help but feel with your memories of past holidays. And it’s hard not to look at other families and feel set apart.
But you can get through the holidays. Here are some things you can do to help yourself and your family during this time of year:
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