My dad had a lot of Clark Griswold in him. In fact, I'm relatively certain his Clark Griswold-like characteristics were so pronounced they were mentioned at his funeral. Every year during the holidays, he and my mom packed the family into our Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon (complete with moon roof and "wood" side panels) and drove off in search of the perfect Christmas tree. We hunted Christmas trees in rain, fog, snow, Nor'easters, and below freezing temps. We were dedicated with my dad leading the charge, and we drove triumphantly home with our fresh cut tree strapped to the car's ski racks. During the holidays when I was growing up, we always had a live, fresh cut Christmas tree adorning our living room in the little blue house on Broadway. One year to my sister Jenny's displeasure, it was a tree she had planted and nurtured in our yard over the years, but that's another story for another day.
Fresh cut Christmas trees were a holiday tradition I sadly didn't carry on with my family. Given how lifelike artificial trees have become in the past few decades, we've always had one of those instead. I didn't have to vacuum up needles or worry about fires like my mom did, but we never went tromping through the woods or a Christmas tree farm with the kids, never strapped a tree to the top of our car, and our house was never scented with the aroma of evergreen.
As the holidays approached this year, I wasn't certain I was even going to decorate my artificial Christmas tree. I've viewed the holidays with some trepidation this year because it is my first without my dad. Our kids are grown and don't live at home anymore and making the effort of hauling out our tree and schlepping it downstairs, digging out our ornaments, and hanging them seemed pointless and like a lot of work I just didn't feel like doing.
My dad has been gone for 10 months now, and I have coped with my grief in stages. His illness and death were unexpected, sudden, and brutal in their intensity. In many ways, it still doesn't seem real that he is gone. Yet he is.
My first stage of grieving was numbness. I had other people to worry about, work projects to take care of, classes to teach, books to write, and more. In those early months my grief bubbled up occasionally, but I was always able to tamp it down and refocus on my task at hand instead. During that stage I wrote a tribute to him, accepted and thanked people for their condolences, tried to comfort my family, dedicated a book or two to him, and congratulated myself on being okay. I was so numb I didn't realize I wasn't.
In the next stage, I started to process. I allowed my grief and took the time to acknowledge it. As I am given to do, I did much of my processing in writing with tears streaming down my face. During this phase, I also spent a lot of time doing things I enjoyed. I traveled multiple places with Jim and with friends. I went on several boats. I wrote a lot and communicated with my readers via this blog and social media. I taught a multiple classes. Unfortunately, my dog Sofie became ill and died during this time, as well. I thought I handled it pretty well.
In mid-October, I realized I was exhausted. I'd been struggling with an ongoing health issue since May when I accidentally ingested gluten while traveling (I have celiac disease and eating even trace amounts of gluten can send me into a health and inflammatory spiral that lasts for about six months). I felt drained of life force energy. I've always been even-keeled, emotionally and spiritually energetic, optimistic, and generally relaxed and happy no matter what is going on in my life, but I noticed even the smallest things sent me into a flurry of stress. My ability to cope was gone, and I felt spiritually, emotionally, and physically depleted. All I wanted to do was sleep and go somewhere to spend weeks away from all people recharging my batteries. I took some time off from teaching my classes (I will resume in January), stopped writing blogs and working on books or projects, spent almost no time on social media, and spent less time around people. There was a period in late October and early November after we returned from a trip to Nevada, Arizona, and Utah where I didn't leave the house for about ten days because I was so ill and depleted, and I felt I just couldn't "do people." I emerged briefly to attend the Port Gamble Ghost Conference the week before Thanksgiving because I'd committed to do so months ago, but then I returned home and into my self-imposed exile.
It was during this period I started to dread the holidays because there was a big, dad-shaped hole right in the middle of them. Jim's car broke down and he had to work over Thanksgiving, so I was unable to travel to be with my family. I sat home with the dogs all day on Thanksgiving and pretended it was just any other day. In fact, it's only been in the past week when I've started to peek out of my hole, get out into the world, and feel as if I am coming to life again. It turns out that while the exile felt awful while I was going through it, it was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries.
I remained unsure what I was going to do about Christmas. I still had no intention of putting up a Christmas tree or decorating. Then, I was chatting with my friend Teresa last night about old family Christmas traditions and we started talking about fresh Christmas trees and how much we loved then. In my tentative journeys back into the world, I noticed a few places had living Christmas trees, and I had been feeling a pull towards them. When I was talking to Teresa, it struck me exactly what I wanted to do for the holidays. I decided to buy a small living Christmas tree in honor of my father. If the ground isn't frozen, I will plant it on the first anniversary of his death (2/1). If it is frozen, I'll plant it as soon as I can. In this way, I feel like my dad is still a part of my holidays.
Today I went to Home Depot and was gratified to discover they had living Christmas trees. I chose a small spruce and got some tiny lights and ornaments and brought it home to decorate.
The photo to the left is my living Christmas tree tribute to my dad. The star on the top is a stained glass ornament my dad made for me. I had forgotten I had it, but when I found it I was delighted because it was perfect. (Those are my citrus trees in the background. They are wintering indoors in a south facing window where they can stay warm and get lots of sunlight).
I've written a lot about grief in 2018, and I've shared much of it with my readers. My grief has manifested in many ways throughout the year. At times I've ignored it and soldiered on and at times I've acknowledged and allowed it. I've found the times of allowing have felt more healing to me than the times of ignoring. Go figure.
I know many people are facing a holiday season without a loved one. It's an experience most of us will share at some point because death is the great equalizer. It inhabits all of our lives with the memory of those who were once with us in body but no longer are. Your grief may feel raw and fresh, or it may have mellowed with time, but times of family gatherings and tradition often serve to highlight those who are no longer with you.
However, if you can find a way to honor them in your holiday rituals, it may help. Whether it's getting a live Christmas tree and later planting it in your yard in their honor, buying ornaments that capture their essence and hanging them on your holiday tree, rejuvenating an old family holiday tradition, remembering them in prayer or meditation, donating to their favorite charity in their name, lighting candle in their honor, or something else that reminds you of them, it can help you heal. Create a new tradition for you and your family that honors those who have left you. Do something that captures their spirit and makes you smile. And as you do, open your heart and listen. You just may hear them whispering to you and realize that while they are physically no longer there, they have never left you.