This is the second Christmas I will face without my sister, who died just over a year and half ago. I know I’ve used this blog to process my grief a lot, but it amazes me how much I am always learning. I hope these thoughts on the “second Christmas” may be helpful to some.
First, the first Christmas. I confess here that last Christmas was way harder than I ever thought it would be. As my sister lived in Newfoundland and I live in Ontario we hadn’t physically spent Christmas together very often in recent years. Because of this, I made the false assumption that Christmas wouldn’t be harder than any other time, since it wasn’t like I was used to seeing her at Christmas anyway. I could not have been more wrong.
You know what gets you about Christmas if you’ve lost someone? The nostalgia. I hadn’t been prepared for what nostalgia would do to me. It meant that every carol, every memory, every smell that made me think of the past, instantly made me think of before – before my sister died, before everything changed, before things were sad. Everything came with a memory, and even if she wasn’t in it, it was still a memory that I’d had when she was alive. I would take out a Christmas ornament given to me by someone I couldn’t even remember and think “Roxanne was alive when I got this.” I’d hear a song we listened to as children and think “Roxanne was alive when we listened to this.” I’d eat a Christmas treat and remember the first time I tried it, and remember “Roxanne was alive then and now she’s not.”
In the middle of November my son was in the Santa Claus parade with his Scouting group. I don’t even particularly like Santa Claus parades, and I don’t ever remember watching one with Roxanne. Then I heard my first Christmas carol of the season. A band was rounding the corner and I could hear the sound of Jingle Bells begin to swell. The nostalgia came like a wave, and began to leak out my eyes. I wasn’t even thinking about Roxanne until that moment and there I was on the street corner, unable to keep the tears from streaming down my cheeks. That’s when I realized I was in trouble. Nostalgia was everywhere, and with it, so was grief. And sometimes my grief leaked out at the most annoying moments – at a school concert, shopping at a store, standing in line to get a picture with Santa. Christmas was hard. I woke up with tears coming out of my eyes on Christmas Eve before I was even awake. It was like my heart knew what day it was. I said to my husband: “I don’t know if I can do this. Can you wake me up on Boxing Day?…” I was frozen for about an hour before the sound of my kids running around (and the fact that I had a Christmas Eve service to lead) pulled me forward.
There was a song that I did love to listen to last year, and it is one that I still love. There is one line that, I confess, still makes my eyes leak. It says: We’ll make new traditions in light of the old, cause life without revision will silence our souls. (Link to full song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItpXDIvYXC8)
I don’t know if it’s a good coping mechanism or not, but this year I realized that if I still wanted to love Christmas I would have to make some revisions. Yes, there are memories and traditions and songs that bring back memories that I cherish, but I can only handle those in doses. As I face this Christmas second, I am ready for revisions.
You know what I did last week? I went through my Christmas decorations, and I passed on a whole lot of the “when my sister was still alive” decorations. I don’t know why that was helpful for me to do, but it just was. Yes, I kept a lot of special ones…but I have also made revisions. I have bought some new ones. I am ready to build new Christmas memories. I’m not getting rid of Christmas, or the memories that come with it – I’m making revisions. Because “life without revisions will silence our souls.”
I will hold on to many things. Many years ago I bought a book called “The House of Wooden Santas.” It’s an advent story where you read one segment a day. Roxanne always read it to her kids growing up and one day, long before having children, I saw it in a store on sale and bought my own copy. Last year was the first year my son was old enough to enjoy it and it was the first year I got to engage in this tradition that had been inspired by my sister. The funny thing was, I discovered I didn’t even like The House of Wooden Santas. And you know one of the things that made me so angry last Christmas? I HATED that I couldn’t tell Roxanne that. I wanted to be able to give her a hard time that she had praised up this book to me that wasn’t (in my opinion) even all that great – and I couldn’t. There were days just looking at the book made me angry for my loss. And, as anyone knows with a six year, not continuing to read the book until we were finished was not an option! I suffered through, but there were days that I felt sheer rage at the book. I call it “grief rage” now. It’s a real thing, I assure you.
The interesting thing is that with many of the things I passed on this year, I did not pass on “The House of Wooden Santas.” Instead, it is proudly sitting on top of our pile of Christmas books. Tomorrow, on December 1, Josiah and I will start reading it again and journey with a boy named Jessie trying to find the meaning of Christmas. I don’t like the book any better, but I didn’t get rid of it. My revision is that, this year, I am not angry when I look at it. I will read it, and remember how much my sister loved it, and my heart will smile through its aching, as I tell Josiah not only the story in the book, but the stories of the Aunt who loved it so much.
It does make me sad sometimes that I’ve had to revise. Christmas is when we wish everything could stay the same, and often I wish that I could go back to “before.” Before, when I could hear Charlie Brown’s Christmas without feeling like my heart was being stabbed. Before, when I could make it through an Advent reading at church without needing tissues. Before, when there would be a gift with her hand writing on a tag under our tree. Last year, the pain of longing for “before” was overwhelming. This year, I am learning to make new traditions- and my soul does not feel as hard.
It is, of course, how Christmas began: the unexpected, things looking nothing like people thought they should, God in manger, the Holy in a hayloft. Revisions. Revisions to what everyone thought the coming of the Christ should be. I’m thankful for a Christ who lets us find hope in revisions.
It’s like writing a story. There is a draft, and it gets revised. And revised again. But the story is always there. No matter how much my life is revised, the story of my sister will always be in it. For that, I am thankful.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the day we remember the HOPE of this season, if you are facing a first Christmas without someone you love, or a Christmas that is hard for any reason, let me say what I would have loved to have known, but was not sure about last year: there is hope. It will not always be this hard. You will learn to revise. Maybe not today, maybe not this year, or even next year – but when you are ready.
Your soul will not remain silent.