Happy Holidays from the Upside Down

I am mostly doing really well, honestly, but this past Saturday night I cried until mascara made black half-moons under my eyes while Renee and I walked our dog. (Renee gets bonus points for acting unembarrassed by my sobbing on Rt. 116 as I picked up Lola’s poop.)  I’d held myself together for Thanksgiving, but two days later the realization hit me: No matter how much gratitude I practice nor how many new traditions I embrace, I will always have a giant hole in every single special day in my life, forever. Understanding I was permanently damaged just made me cry.

Our Thanksgiving was lovely, spent with my wife, my mom, and old and new friends, cooking, drinking mulled wine, feasting, and crafting collages about our gratitude.  But all day long I felt like I was experiencing the day from behind glass. thanksgivingI was there but not there. I knew what words to paste and images to clip out for my collage – love, poetry, nature, friendship, rest. I knew how to play hostess and thank my dear friends for spending the day with me. But the absence of Kyle in the world – and my extra-acute awareness of his absence — felt bigger than anything happening right in front of me.

Having to act normal, let alone festive, when the day had that huge hollow center was exhausting.  (In fact, I threw up Thanksgiving evening before the first guests left and several more times since then, which is a bummer, as I thought I had my mysterious cyclic vomiting thing licked, but more on that another time.)

thanksgiving collageUntil now, every holiday since my son’s death has been a first – first birthdays without him, first Christmas without him, etc. For all these firsts, it seemed only right that our open, messy mourning would dominate the day. But this year’s holiday marked our first second – this was our second Thanksgiving with Kyle dead… Soon we’ll have the second Christmas without him alive. And it has become clear to me that each year, we’re going to be expected to act a little less sad. Mercifully, I am less hysterical and shaky than I was the first year, more able to practice normalcy – but it turns out I’m no less heartbroken.

I’ve been working hard on gratitude and acceptance. To help keep my Thanksgiving focus on the blessings of friendship and love I still have in my life, I created a slide show of photos of all the loved ones coming to dinner on Thanksgiving. We all enjoyed seeing it play throughout the day. But at the end of the night, I felt compelled to try to convey my underlying sorrow, so I briefly played on repeat a 5-second video of Kyle laughing and talked about how haunted I’d been by the sound of it after I’d stumbled across it while making the slide show. Everyone who heard it was suitably saddened.  But why did I do that? Sharing my sadness does not relieve it. Amplifying my grief by making others feel it with me only makes me sadder – and then I feel regretful about ruining someone else’s mood. There is nothing new or helpful left to say about how sad it is that Kyle’s gone. There is now only a hole that we all have to accept and step around.

Kyle potato masher
Here is Kyle getting a potato masher for Christmas in 2011; mashed potatoes were his favorite part of holiday meals.

Holidays and other special occasions when Kyle and I would always have been in touch, if not together, make the hole he left yawn even bigger.

My delayed tears flowed when I realized that the widened pull of the hole – like the dark opening to the Upside Down in Stranger Things — was always going to make holidays scary. Special days will now include a maw opening into an even larger well of grief than I am already facing on regular days. So now this whole month leading up to Christmas (I’m Jewish, but was raised celebrating Christmas) has an ominous spirit. Even worse, I feel this same fear when I know I’ll be seeing Kyle’s daughter; she’s delightful but is also a constant reminder of what he is missing; her most precious moments open the hole widest of all.

I do know that a form of this grief is universal at the holidays, even when we aren’t mourning – because holidays are often a reminder of how our families are seldom quite what we want them to be. The gap between our hopes and our realities can be vast, particularly if we’re aiming for a  perfect Hallmark holiday free of criticism and disappointment. Divorce, mentally ill family members, not having the money to buy the presents our kids want, all of these can create their own holes.  Even in the best years, when everyone I loved was gathered in my warm and cozy house cooking and laughing together. there were still tensions and squabbles, judgments and tears.

So for Day 28 in my month of gratitude, I return to acceptance. I am grateful for what is still good (so so much, and I never forget it), grateful that technology let me end my Thanksgiving night with a video chat with my daughter and a video performance and reading by Kyle’s daughter, maggieamberskype.jpggrateful that Jamie had a good celebration with friends and that Amy made her husband a heart-filled treasure hunt for his birthday, grateful for my mom living near enough for a sleepover on Thanksgiving night, grateful the universe put two wonderful pseudo daughters, Priyanka and Natalie,

This is Natalie & Priyanka helping us celebrate Renee’s birthday at a karaoke club in NYC a couple of years ago. 

in my life – and let them be part of the slumber party here, grateful a friend’s cancer surgery the previous week went well, grateful another friend found homes for several homeless boys this month, grateful for the fabulous mother-daughter film Ladybird that I got to see with my mother the day after Thanksgiving, grateful for the writing accountability buddies who have been meeting with me virtually and in person.

Much as I hate it, I am even learning to accept the hole. I don’t expect ever to feel grateful for it — but I am grateful for the love that dug it, and for all the love that pulls me out of it every day.

Author: Lanette Sweeney

Mothering adult children is hard. Being an adult child isn't easy, either.

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