Updated: Mar 12
Christmas is a time of joy and cheer. It is a time to celebrate family and friends. Many people search to find the perfect gifts for the ones they love, hoping to surprise and delight them. Families get together and enjoy each other’s company. In the United States, many people share the magic of Christmas.
But the magic of Christmas can be blighted by loss. For those who’ve lost a loved one recently, celebrating Christmas can be one of the most painful times of year. For those who’ve lost someone near Christmas, the season can bring pangs of joyful memories tarnished by sickness and death. For those with no family, loneliness can shine through even the most carefully planned day.
These moments of heartache can strike at the most inopportune times. A person can be blissfully going about their holiday routines and hear a song, see a movie, or see that perfect gift for someone who’s no longer there. It is as though you’ve stepped in a hole unseen. A tide of pain washes over you and you become distraught. You don’t want to ruin the holiday for anyone else, so you attempt to hold back the tears. But the more you hold back, the greater the pressure when the dam breaks and the tears rush forth, hot and bitter.
12 years ago, one Christmas morning, my family and I were sitting around the dining room table, having brunch and celebrating one last Christmas with my mother. Six months prior, she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
That summer day when she went to the hospital, I knew something was really wrong. She’d been in so much pain that she couldn’t keep from crying out. When they kept her overnight, I felt sick with fear. But when they confirmed her illness and the timeline of her death, I crumbled.
My mom had been abusive all my life, but she was still my mom. There were many times when she was cheerful and helpful. But the one season she loved the most was Christmas. I was pregnant with my son at the time of her diagnosis and my oldest daughter was 2 years old.
We’d spent that summer together, making last memories. She kept buying things for my daughter, saying “I’m going to buy her her first My Little Pony, because I’m going to die soon.” “Look, a feather boa! She needs one and I’m going to get it because I’m going to die soon.” “Can I have your Cheetos? I’m going to die soon.” She made a joke out of the thing that was killing us all inside.
My son was born just after Thanksgiving. My mom busted in my hospital room and elbowed her way through nurses. “I’m going to be first to hold my grandson, because I’m going to die soon.” The nurse handed my boy to me anyway. I looked lovingly into his beautiful face as my mom tapped her foot impatiently. Finally, I handed him over. I knew she needed that joy as much as I did.
That Christmas was poignant. I was staying with my mom to help out and because I’d just moved back from Colorado. She spent a lot of time cuddling with my daughter. But she made it a point to hold her grandson as much as she could, despite the pain. We were already on borrowed time, but I sensed that she had waited for her grandson.
We decorated the tree and watched “The Polar Express” one last time. We wrapped the presents together and watched “White Christmas” one last time. No one wanted to say it was the end, but we all knew it was coming.
That Christmas morning was joyful. My brother and Aunt were there with us. We spoiled my daughter with many gifts. We were laughing and talking as though nothing were wrong.
All of a sudden, my mother cried out and dropped her coffee on the table. She fell to the floor and we all stood up. As my Auntie Jody and my step-father, Phil, carried my mom to bed, I tried to clean up. The coffee had spread across the red Christmas table cloth and was dripping to the floor. I sat down in her chair and started crying. The tears wouldn’t stop and I tried to dry them to take care of my children.
The doctor confirmed that we were near the end. The loss cut through me like a searing hot sword. A week before, we had decided to move my wedding to New Years Eve. It was supposed to be the following May, but it had become clear that my mom wouldn’t make it until May.
As it all sunk in, the last hope I held onto was that my mom could still be at my wedding. She was still barely hanging on and I knew she’d wanted to be there. She’d helped with all the planning. We were still going to do the reception later, but we had the church held for New Year’s Eve. My fiancé’s parents were flying in and the wheels were in motion.
Six days, I thought. Please Mama, hold on for six more days. My mom couldn’t really get out of bed anymore and a wheelchair was brought in for the wedding. The day arrived and she was still with me, as excited as she could be to see her only daughter in a wedding dress.
I was elated. At least she would be there. I may lose her soon, but at least I could give her one last happy memory. I went to get my hair done and tried to be cheerful. It was my wedding day! I had rented a hotel room and stopped home in between to get my overnight things and makeup bag. The dress and shoes were being brought to the church.
As I gathered my things, my step-sister, Courtney, by my side, my Auntie Jody came into the room and closed the door. I was holding onto my false cheerfulness, but when I saw her face, it started to fall apart.
“Your mom isn’t going to be at your wedding Cate.” Auntie Jody was very grave. She looked pained to be saying it.
“But she was fine, I talked to her this morning! We have the wheelchair and…” I trailed off in dismay.
“Phil couldn’t find the unity candle for the service. It was in the laundry room and he couldn’t find it. Your mom was upset with him. When he went out to get the wine, she got out of bed and went downstairs to find it. He found her on the stairs with the candle when he got home. She’s still alive, but Cate, she’ll never get out of bed again.”
“No, but… No.” The facade crumbled and I started sobbing. The tears wouldn’t stop coming. Everything was ruined. My mom wasn’t going to be there. She would never get out of bed again. She would never laugh again. Her life was slipping away.
I dejectedly got up and went to the hotel. They wouldn’t let me see her. They said she needed to rest now. They’d given her a lot of pain killers and she was still suffering a lot. They didn’t want what little composure I had left to leave me.
I refused to be cheered up. Courtney and my brother’s fiancé tried to cheer me up. They gave me champagne and told funny stories. They tried their best, but there was nothing for it. How you do sooth that kind of raw pain?
Still the tears wouldn’t stop. We drove to the church. It was snowing. It was a quiet ride. I went to the bride’s room to put on my dress. I went through the motions. I tried over and over to dry my tears, but they wouldn’t stop coming. But the show must go on.
I climbed the stairs and my dad walked me down the aisle. The church was still decorated for Christmas. The alter was framed with beautiful white flowers and there were three large Christmas trees glowing softly, lit with blue lights. I saw the unity candle and that was it. I drew my breath in sharply and the tears flowed freely.
My Aunt Jody rushed forward and handed me tissues. I tried to dry my eyes. I handed my bouquet to my sister. I tried to compose myself. Phil is a pastor and officiated the wedding. My husband to be was smiling and I tried to cheer up for his sake.
The service progressed and I don’t remember most of it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the church. Everyone could feel my deep pain. How could they not?
After the wedding, I signed the marriage certificate and hugged all of my family. I was excited to be married and so many people had turned up on short notice. I was grateful for their presence. We went straight to my Mom’s house, all dressed up, and went to have a wedding toast with her. She was lying in bed, drugged out of her mind. She had put on some makeup and was trying to smile through her pain.
We toasted and took some pictures, and that was it. She had held out long enough to see me in my dress and be as much mom as she could be. But she never spoke again. Five days later, she died.
Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t see that cup dropping to the table and the coffee spreading through the table cloth. I do my best to make the day as special as I can for my children. I try to bring as much holiday cheer as I can. But Christmas lost its magic 12 years ago and somehow, I’ve been unable to find it again.
This year, I have lost a lot of people. It was just before Christmas last year that the cascade of nightmare memories had begun. It turned out to be too much to ask my family to believe me or support me in this fight for my life. It nearly killed me. I nearly killed me.
In the end, it was my children that pulled me through. It was my friends who were there to let me cry. It was the knowledge that if I killed myself, then the monsters who stole my childhood innocence would win. I refused to give them my life too.
I grieved the loss of nearly my entire family this year. Phil is the only one still with me. He didn’t know what to say, but he knew that I needed someone to remind me that I still mattered to more than my three children.
I haven’t quite lost my husband’s family yet, but as the divorce process draws to a close, I know that I will lose them too. They were so kind, taking us all in as their own. But what am I to do? I can’t hold onto them.
I’ve lost so many people this time of year, but the one that hurts the most is my mom. I often think how much she would’ve loved her grandchildren. But one of the hardest pills to swallow is to know that I could never have healed if she were alive. She would never have let me go. It becomes muddy water to go any further.
But this will be the last Christmas I let that storm cloud consume me. This year was a year of great loss and healing, but next year is the year I remake myself into something new: The Cate I always wanted to be. This year, I will make my own Christmas magic. If I don’t get my family back, I will piece together my family with friends.
For many of us, Christmas is a time to honor those we’ve lost. Sometime it can interrupt traditions to the point of destabilization. But the more we hold onto that loss, the longer it takes us to create new traditions.
When we first lose a parent, or God forbid, a child, it is hard to get through that first Christmas, that first birthday, that special occasion that you wished they could be at. You realize how much they were woven into the fabric of your life. How every detail has seemingly changed in their absence.
But the greater trial is life, and it is truly harder for the living than it is for those we’ve lost. They are free from all the pain life can bring. They have moved on and are wrapped in the bliss of the love of the universe and God. It is easy to forget that death can be a release to those we love.
It is harder to lose someone than to be the one lost. The grieving process is messy, but it is a necessary part of life. We must learn to feel our pain as it presents itself. The more we run from it, the more it consumes us. When you turn away from your pain, you allow it to run your life. We must learn to let go of those we love the most, when the time comes.
For those who know well the feeling of loss this holiday season, I have a prayer for you. I leave you with a version of The Metta Sutra, or the Loving Kindness mantra.
May all beings be happy
May all beings be peaceful and at ease
May all beings be safe and free from harm
May all beings be filled with joy
May all beings experience love