Grief is the beast we all must ride. Chris Abani
For sixteen years, I have sent cards to my clients and colleagues in January. On some I write personal notes, beginning blithely with a cheery “Happy New Year!” But this year, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel it, and the sentiment felt simplistic as if I was looking out over the losses so many of them had experienced in the prior year and choosing to ignore them.
Ever since Jimmy died, the holidays have been hard, brutal even at times. Dan, Molly and I learned early on that the key to surviving them was to get out of town. Some years we left the country. In others, we found a small hotel by the sea on the central or southern coast of California and spent the week on the beach throwing sticks for Buster.
I expected the COVID Christmas of 2020 to be challenging, but because Molly was home with us, and no one else could travel either, it wasn’t. We honored the traditions that lifted our spirits like watching “Elf” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and avoided the ones that accentuated Jimmy’s absence.
After Jimmy died, no one warned me that holidays and special days don’t get easier with time. Or rather, that they’d get easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Over time, I’ve discovered a whole different set of pain points I never saw coming. His friends’ families growing and expanding with girlfriends or wives, a grandchild or two. Dreams that died with him.
I figured out how to make it through the holidays in one piece which mostly meant ignoring as much of the rituals and traditions as possible. I don’t go to the mall, I don’t decorate the house and I spend a lot less time on social media, carefully avoiding the photos of everyone else’s beautifully decorated homes and shiny, whole families. Traveling helps and so do long walks and time spent in cities I’ve never been to or cultures unfamiliar to my own. Being with Dan and Molly is crucial and non-negotiable.
But this year, the three of us couldn’t be together. Our Southwest Airlines flight was cancelled five hours after its scheduled departure time. And again, when Dan and I tried to leave again a few days later. By the time Southwest shut down their operation, it was too late to drive. I hated that Molly was alone on Christmas, and we couldn’t be together. No amount of FaceTime calls could ever make up for that.
Stuck at home during the final days of December, I made the most of my time. Cleaning the house, clearing out closets and files, getting organized for the year to come. But when January hit, I lost my drive. I wandered around the kitchen instead of getting to work. I stayed up too late and struggled to get out of bed in the morning. I used the onslaught of storms as an excuse to stay inside, dozing off in the late afternoons at my desk to the sound of rain pounding on the windows.
February marks the nine-year anniversary of Jimmy’s death. In one way, I can hardly believe he’s been gone that long, and in another, it feels like forever. I think Jimmy would be proud of the way I’ve gone on, but I can’t imagine how I will keep doing it for another 30 or 40 years.
Therapist and author Claire Bidwell Smith recently marked the 26th anniversary of her mother’s passing, writing in part: “Ethereal is not enough. As if it’s been too many years of this. As if maybe I’ve finally paid my dues. As if maybe now she will finally come waltzing through the door and sweep all of us up in her arms like none of it ever happened.”
Yes, I thought. I have been working so hard at this. Trying to make it through. Not giving into the grief, refusing to sink into despair. But the reward I most want is not an option. No matter how I forge on or how cheerful I force myself to be, the universe is not going to give Jimmy back. Yet much like Joan Didion, who left her husband’s shoes by the front door convinced that he was about to return and need them, I continue to hope.
After three weeks of no exercise, too much caffeine and lots of mindless eating (Why have a bowl of Trader Joe’s Maple & Sea Salt popcorn when you can eat the whole bag?), I hit bottom. Too bloated and wired to sleep, I admitted to myself that I couldn’t keep going this way. I was miserable. Instead of easing the pain of Jimmy’s approaching anniversary, I was making it worse. So I resolved to face the truth of what I’d done to myself and do the only thing that ever works to pull me out of the pit.
The next morning, I got out of bed and weighed myself. That afternoon, I went out for a long walk. The day after that, I shared the way I’d come unglued with one of my dearest friends who’s also lost a child. She listened without judgment then said, “me, too” and shared her own struggles over the holidays.
The only promise I made myself was to move my body every day. That small change has lifted my spirits and lowered my craving for caffeine and sugar. I don’t know that I’m getting any more done, but I’m clear-headed enough to focus on what’s most important. I also took a break from reading memoirs about children who have died and switched to mystery novels. When the sadness starts closing in again, I stand outside in the winter sunshine with Buster and watch the neighborhood mob of deer devour our plants.
I am learning to be intermittently happy and a hopeful kind of sad. Grateful for who is here, devastated by who is not, terrified of who might leave next. Learning to hold the incalculable grief over the death of my son alongside the gratitude for having had him at all. If I reach back too far into the past, I might break. If I think too much about the time I have left without him, I may fall apart. So I stay here, watching for Jimmy in the country-dark night sky. Wondering which star is his. Listening for his voice. Remembering his hugs. Waiting for him to return.