Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Twelve Ways of Christmas - Way 1: Grief and Grumpiness (Yes, you read that right.)

Audio version at The Twelve Ways of Christmas - Way 1: Grief and Grumpiness 

A recent interaction between my mother and me reminded me of the first way of Christmas.  As we stood before her tree, she told me of crying periodically while decorating it the day prior.  We talked of the approaching anniversary of my father's death. They were married for nearly fifty years. 

Then my mother shared she didn't know what had been wrong with her when we spoke by phone earlier in the week.  I explained that personally when I'm sad but not acknowledging it, I can easily become difficult and moody.

Unacknowledged grief often leads to grumpiness.  This is why I decided grief and grumpiness should be the first way.  Whether from death, divorce, trauma, unexpected change or unmet expectations, how we do or don't honor grief and loss impacts the remaining ways of Christmas.  

The interaction between my mother and me reminded me of my own experience a few Christmases ago interwoven with this past week.

Decorating my Christmas tree is usually a beautiful experience thanks in part to the ornaments that come from places and people that have been dear to me.  This particular year was different. Decorating the tree had a certain start and stop quality to it.   I started one evening, did a bit more the next morning and finished days later.

That year was hard as I realized I've accumulated things beyond ornaments surrounding the holidays.  The challenge began with discovering the many cat ornaments I've collected over the years. These ornaments are associated with Templeton who spent nearly 18 Christmases with me.

The last live Christmas tree I had was 2007. I still recall the happiness I felt as I heard Templeton lapping up water from the tree stand. I was grateful to find she liked tree water, since she like me didn't drink enough in winter. I learned early in the new year that Templeton was dying. I also learned chemicals in tree water can be highly toxic to pets. This may not have been the primary cause of her death, but I did not want another live tree. I didn't want to fear Bogey and Mystery's finding a new water source or be reminded of Templeton's little lapping sounds.

I was reminded of Templeton with every cat ornament that went on the tree.  Then I remembered the year prior and how I received a phone call after Christmas as I was considering undecorating the tree. 

The voice on the other end of the phone informed us that a dear soul had died. We had seen him a couple of weeks prior to Christmas when my nephew rushed him from West TN to the Vanderbilt emergency room. That holiday had included a stay in the hospital for Jonathan who was spirited and young.  His cancer had only been found earlier that Spring and by December he looked nothing like himself physically yet his inner light brightly shined.

I answered that phone call then literally within minutes undecorated the tree.  That's no exaggeration. Jerry walked into the room and said "What are you doing?  What happened to the tree?" My response to not wanting to feel regarding Jonathan's death was to undecorate the tree faster than I could feel. I still remember thinking, 'I am distracting myself from feeling the loss of Jonathan.'  

Then there's my father and the Christmas of 2005. We thought his last Christmas might be 2004 after receiving his cancer diagnosis earlier that summer.  Of course in my family no one actually said it yet many of us thought it as we all gathered in my parents' home.  We showed up and of course my father didn't. He left home early that morning having unbeknownst to us volunteered to work all day allowing younger coworkers to be at home with their children. Meanwhile my father's family gathered without him and acted as if all was normal when it wasn't.

Month's passed and Christmas 2005 arrived.  That year some of us actually spoke aloud our wonderings.  Would he be here or might he die on the day of his father's death. Papaw, as we called him, died in intensive care just down the street from me the day before Christmas Eve in 2001. For several days prior, I traveled Natchez Trace to visit with him during the allotted hours as well as see my parents who made the ninety mile drive to be with him daily. 

My grandfather lay in the bed for days often repeating the phrase "Lord's Prayer. Lord's Prayer." I volunteered to say the Lord's Prayer with or for him and he'd firmly say, "NO." This was the man I had known all my life by whom my father was reared. The man who was in control and controlling was losing control. I'll never forget singing to him, at the moment I don't even recall the song. I wanted to help him find peace. He told me he didn't want me to sing, but I did instead of saying, "I’m sad we’ve never really had a relationship." I sang anyway. I knew the words to whatever I sang, but I didn't listen to the words of my heart, the words that would have been unscripted and personal.

When Christmas came around in 2005, I thought my father would live through the holidays but I thought he would be held hostage without being able to get in his car and avoid us the way he did the year prior. He ended up with hospice care at home for our last Christmas together. I was so grateful to be able to sit by his bed and just be rather than have another funeral to hang on memory's tree.

The particular year these memories surfaced, I decorated the tree yet I was not as present as I wanted to be. I wished for a do-over.  I wanted to redecorate my tree and let the tears flow.  

As I shared with my mother as she shared with me, I did just that very thing. 

In my fifty-four years, this year was the most engaged I've ever felt decorating my tree.  One moment, a tear would trickle down my check then in the next I would be smiling.  This year I took my time and decorated again over the span of days but it wasn't because I was avoiding memories.  My starting and stopping this year was related savoring the experience, the depth of joy and sorrow, the memories painful and sweet.  

Of course, anyone peering in my window might have thought, 'What is her problem?'  When was the last time you witnessed someone crying while placing ornaments on a tree?

I'll tell you what my problem's been. I have spent far too much of my life not allowing myself to experience and express what I'm feeling.  Acknowledging my grief connects me to me then to others if they're willing to share as my mother was this week. Whereas grief potentially connects, grumpiness builds walls and protects us from vulnerability. 

So if you see or talk with me and I'm crying for sorrow or joy, please don't have pity or feel sad for me.  Be glad I'm allowing the greenery that grows in my heart to be alive and nourished. I'm resuscitating my heart through beautiful sadness while honoring those in my life dead and alive who are sweet ornaments on the tree of my heart.  

Instead of "Happy Holidays" it feels more truthful for me to say, "Happy, Sweet, Sad, Dear, Deep Holidays."

Pondering the First Way of Christmas - Grief and Grumpiness: 

1. How do you navigate and honor loss around the holidays? 
2. What are your family's unspoken rules around loss and grief? 
3. Do you get grumpy or grieve?

Happy, Sweet, Sad, Dear, Deep Holidays to You and Yours and may this holiday find you dwelling inside your heart and all it holds. 

- Dawn, The Good News Muse, 14 December 2013

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