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What No One Tells You About Grieving And The Holidays

I no longer looked forward to the most wonderful time of year.

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A smashed blue bulb Christmas ornament.
Dan Forbes/Trunk Archive
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On the Saturday after Thanksgiving many years ago, my father and I found ourselves with a free evening at home. My husband was out with friends from out of town, my mom was chasing post-Thanksgiving shopping deals and my then-young children had gone to bed early. As we sat in my family room, looking at the lights of Christmas tree twinkling next to the fireplace, my father eyed me with a mischievous grin; I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“Wanna watch Christmas Vacation?” he asked with a laugh.

Clark Griswold and his quest to have the hap-hap-happiest of holidays had always been a favorite of ours. No matter how many times we’d watched it over the years and though we could mouth the words line by line, everyone from Todd and Margo to Cousin Eddie made us belly laugh.

I quickly concocted some bad sangria made with the leftover bottles of wine from Thanksgiving, and a tradition was born: For years, that Saturday night ritual became sacred for us, bad sangria and all. It was our guilty holiday pleasure, something we both looked forward to in the chaos of our holiday hustle and bustle.

And it was a punch to the gut the year he died and I found myself unable to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

No one tells you that grieving can suck the joy right out of the holiday traditions you’ve come to rely on to connect with your family.

No one tells you that your grief will be amplified because the sounds of a familiar Christmas tune will reduce you to sobs in the grocery store.

No one tells you that, like Clark Griswold, you’ll realize you hid a gift away for your loved one, and the pang of sadness that they’ll never open it cuts you in half.

Ever since my father’s death, the holidays have not been the same. For a few years, I tried to keep alive traditions he had loved: I continued to make his favorite squash and apples recipe for Thanksgiving, and I would place John Grisham’s latest novel under the tree, even though my dad would never be able to borrow it from me as he always did.

But, with each tradition I tried to hold onto, with each memory that came with hanging my Dad’s stocking on my mantle or making the egg-free Christmas cookie recipes he so enjoyed, my grief deepened.

The holidays became harder as my grief evolved. And, as my family dealt with their own grief in varying ways, family gatherings became terse, stressful and exhausting.

I no longer looked forward to the most wonderful time of year.

Grief made me feel that my heart had turned to stone, just like the Grinch’s.

I realized that there’s something else people don’t tell you about grieving at the holidays.

No one tells you it’s OK to change your holiday traditions.

It’s OK to skip Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Betty’s in favor of creating new memories around a neighbor’s holiday table.

It’s OK to spend Christmas Eve with your best friend, instead of subjecting yourself to the heavy family grief that comes with the first Christmas after your loved one dies.

It’s OK to listen when your grief says, “I can’t meet my mom at the cemetery today” or “I won’t hang his stocking this year.”

In the same way white twinkle lights make everything look a little more festive at the holidays, grief has a way of making even Buddy the Elf feel like canceling the holidays.

If you are grieving, be kind to yourself at the holidays. No one will think less of you if you just can’t bring yourself to make your mother’s gingerbread cookies. Store-bought cookies are just fine for the PTA holiday bake sale, I promise.

Your friends will understand if you can’t muster enough holiday cheer to attend the neighborhood holiday tree lighting. And, if you never want to attend again, that’s OK, too.

Grieving at the holidays means finding your new normal, even if it means starting from scratch with memory making.

While I’ve watched Christmas Vacation a few times since my dad passed away seven years ago, I’ve never relished it in the same way. I’ll still drink bad sangria, though (grief at least hasn’t robbed me of that pleasure).

And, last year, when my son gave me a Clark Griswold ornament depicting the “Hallelujah” moment when Clark lights up the entire house with lights, I smiled and said, through my tears, “It’s a real beaut, Clark,” as I gently placed it on our tree.