The Ebb + Flow of Grief During Holidays
Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 2018 for Jesse Was Here. It may have been edited for length and clarity.
On the day I find myself writing this I am 10 months into the loss of my son. Ten months, 14 days to be exact, but who is still counting? Oh yeah, all of us are still counting.
After Jesse died from type 1 diabetes (T1D) I wondered how I would ever get through another big milestone. Our first big holiday was Valentine’s Day, but it was so close to his death that it went by without a blink—I didn’t even notice it.
The next was the Superbowl. Not really a holiday but definitely a milestone date for Jesse as he was an avid Packers fan. It’s not a holiday but still hard because Jesse wanted the New Orleans Saints to win, so who could help but watch the Saints go to victory and miss Jesse just that much more because he wasn’t there to giggle and taunt?
Easter rolled around at about month two and we gathered the family together. I did my best to make it okay for the other kids but found myself immersed in deep sadness.
Then came summer—again, not a holiday, but a time with lots of memories of swimming in our backyard with all of Jesse’s friends and Jesse complaining about how freezing cold the water is.
We celebrate what would have been his 14th birthday. We chose to spend that day how we normally would—with his closest friends and our family remembering him, laughing and celebrating the great person he is. Not was, is. Somehow, his birthday is a fond memory, not as sad as the other milestones and as I write this I cannot explain why that is.
Halloween and Thanksgiving are baby steps to easing our way through holidays and milestones. Realizing it was difficult but there was just a slight edge taken off of the pain, I thought, “Maybe, maybe I can get through these with a breath or two more.”
As soon as Thanksgiving faded away my heart got really heavy. I found myself back in the same awful thoughts that I was feeling in the beginning. Crying all the time, not finding joy in anything, thoughts of guilt, thoughts of anger at Jesse for leaving me—leaving us.
Doing my Christmas shopping whether I liked it or not, I found myself walking through the ornament aisle. What started out as an okay day immediately turned to sadness and pain. I looked at the ornaments and felt the pain come full force as I thought, “My God, Jesse is not going to be here to decorate the tree. Do I still buy him an ornament? Do I hang his stocking?”
And then came memories of all the past Christmases and taking the kids’ photos by the tree. Their hours of enjoyment of the world’s dumbest train around the tree skirt.
I ran out of the store as fast as possible without looking like a lunatic. I notice how much more the spotlight is on his death for me. I can’t focus at work and I’m starting to notice the pain in my kids manifest in ways I don’t expect.
My 10-year-old starts to break down and cries easily at school. I find out that he had to read a book called Tuck Everlasting, with a character named Jesse about life and the afterlife. No WONDER he was upset. Just like me, he was feeling his own personal pain through the seasons. I noticed Jesse’s young friends were suddenly grieving publicly on social media and reaching out to me. They too, were missing him at this time of year more than other holidays.
For Charlie the same rang true. Charlie and Mel’s daughter, Eilish, died shortly before I wrote this. She was 13-years-old and diagnosed with T1D about the same time as Jesse—within months of each other. Charlie says he finds himself going over the phone calls he made to tell family and friends about what happened. As the holidays approach for him, he tells me he struggles to find something as normal as having bacon and eggs to just carry on.
So even though I kept thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me? I feel like I did months ago, I thought I was doing better?” I realize I AM doing better. I am realizing that this ebb and flow will continue for a long time to come.
That a boy who looks like Jesse in a store could trigger a three hour cry-fest. Getting a holiday card showing smiling happy family members would feel horrible with thoughts of “I’ll never want to take a family picture again because my family is no longer whole.” And I know it will pass.
Christmas isn’t year round—thank GOD.
So how did I handle Christmas and why did Christmas bother me so much? I realized Christmas was hard for my family because it was a time that gathered everyone no matter what. I realized it was the most painful because it was the last time our whole family had truly gotten together.
This year we decorated our tree with our kids, laughed and followed traditions. We hung Jesse’s stocking as we always did—and will forever. We still had to listen to who the hell took the bite out of the ornament that looks like a cookie but was made out of cinnamon and glue, and felt it only natural to finally peg it on Jesse since he can’t defend himself.
It’s all we can do, remember the good, smiles and giggles.
Author’s Note: I wrote this story back in 2010. As I reflect on this in 2018, it still brings those emotions to the surface. I allude that I hoped one day it would pass—that feeling of never wanting to take a family picture ever again. I want to tell you that as I approach year nine of my loss, while I will always have a huge hole in my heart where Jesse remains, we are taking family pictures for the holidays. There is progress in our grief, moving forward, one breath at a time.