Death and the Holidays

This post is dedicated to Warren and Lisa.

Sunday, December 12, 2010, would have been my brother David’s 58th birthday. He died suddenly of AIDS two days before Christmas (suddenly—he was diagnosed and died three days later), and this is the 25th anniversary of his death. Last year, on the 19th of December, my mother passed away after a long battle of cancer. I bring this up not to be maudlin, but because in the past week, two dear friends had their mothers die (one suddenly, and one after a long illness). And I’m sure there are many of you out there who also have experienced tragedy and loss around this time of year, and can’t help but associate this time of year with a hollow pit in the stomach and a sense that someone or something is missing. No matter how we felt about those people who have left us, the leaving is so final. And we are the ones left to deal with the aftermath, whether it’s regrets or houses filled with things or drawers filled with memories.

It’s tempting, I think, to either try to soldier on or to sink so deeply into the misery that the rest of our lives stop. I’ve seen both. My mother never quite recovered from my brother’s death. And as a result, we lost a big part of our mother on that day 25 years ago, too. Sometimes, the healing is quick and life goes on, and sometimes it takes a long, long time. I am a believer that it takes work to heal fully. That each of these deaths is a part of the story of our lives that we must seek to understand, and integrate into our being, and learn from.

After my brother died, the first time we left the house was to go to a Christmas Eve candlelight service at a local church. I could barely sing those familiar Christmas songs as tears streamed down my face. My brother David and I loved to sing together. He was the star in all the high-school musicals, and we would sit together at my grandmother’s player piano and belt out show tunes; West Side Story was our favorite. This was our karaoke before there was karaoke. (I am one of those alone-in-the-car singers now!) Since then, every year when I’ve gone to a Christmas service (which truthfully, is the only time I go to services—and it’s usually my kid’s vespers service for school), I can’t help but cry when I sing a carol or a hymn. My husband thinks it’s cute, and my kids think it’s funny and embarrassing.

Recently, I’ve been working on healing my past—specifically, that time in my life when my brother died. Oh, I could have forgotten about it and buried it deep in my soul—perhaps to relive in a future life. But like cleaning out a closet, I moved toward healing instead of closing my eyes to it. And a funny thing happened this year…

This year, at my daughter Eve’s Christmas Vespers service, I sang every song and every verse and did not cry a single tear. I was able to belt out those songs as if my brother was still alive, and I still could sing with a full heart—a heart filled with joy and love instead of loss and sadness.  I’m not sure exactly how it happened—that’s part of the mystery of life and love. But I know it happened because I made an effort to heal, rather than letting things stay buried.

Now, you all know that I’m more of a pagan than a Christian. What I really am is a traveler on the Path of Love. But one thing that is consistent across many cultures and religions is that this time of year is a “festival of lights.” I believe it comes from the fact that December, in the Northern hemisphere, is the darkest time of the year—and light symbolizes the return of longer days and the hope and faith that spring will come again. One of the thoughts that have stayed with me from my father’s funeral (20 years ago!!!!) was when a rabbi said that without the misery of death, we wouldn’t understand and appreciate the joy of birth and new life. Yes, it’s a Disney moment—the Circle of Life we are all a part of—and there is beauty, mystery, and sorrow and sadness, but also hope and rebirth…and we know full well that one day it will be our turn to go, too.

So, to all of you facing sadness and loss this holiday season, there is hope! Spring will come again. You just have to believe and do the hard work that it takes to get there. You, too, can sing again without crying—whether it’s in this world or the next. Light a candle and allow yourself to believe it.


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23 Responses to Death and the Holidays

  1. Meg Wolff December 13, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Loved this post and also reading about the Path Of Love. xox

  2. WTGeorge December 13, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Very moved by this, Maria.

  3. JN December 13, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Thank you for sharing something so personal. My friends and I have been talking about just these types of issues. It’s hard having all the memories from childhood -parents/grandparents/siblings/friends to “compete” with each year. With people moved all over the country and travel so stressful, with parents/grandparents/siblings gone, all sorts of sadness/wistfulness can creep in.
    One thing my husband and I have been trying to do the past few years to get past the sense of “missing something” is to give more. We are focusing this year on supporting our deployed troops with packages and cards, as well as baking cookies for seniors and others in our community. If we are focused on doing for someone else, we feel less sad because we have less time to think about it. We do try to keep the traditions alive in memory of those who have left us.
    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  4. James Early December 13, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    You have shared from the depths of your soul. I think that is part of the healing process. Thank you.
    I wish you a Holiday season full of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (however you want to define that word) light and love.

  5. kao December 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Lately, I have been dealing with the finality of death and trying to wrap my mind around it. I am on my path to understanding it.
    I so appreciate this post. Thank you for your honesty, and for sharing your heart with us 🙂

  6. Anita December 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    I lost my sister this year, will be my first Christmas without her, she’s all I had left…….I will keep you in my prayers.

  7. Brenda December 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    I think with Christ in your life you may have been better able to face the loss of your family members knowing that they are in heaven and waiting to be with you again. It’s one thing that gives Christians such a happy outlook and the hope of the future.

  8. shawn December 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    Thank you- not sure what made me check my fb “status” just before walking out the door to a funeral service for a friends’ father, but I did, and there was your post. I’m hoping I can take some of your words and lend it to support my friends who are in need as they work through their loss. Thans again. Happy Holidays.

  9. Richard Redd December 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Maria, Unlike most of your readers, i knew both your parents and your brother, David, although not well . He was a bright cheerful soul when a student in the theatre departmant at Lehigh. I felt the loss of your mother. I even sent her a self-portrait you had done in my class. Her reply “That’s my Maria” You looked so serious and intense then.
    My greatest fear is to have one of my children pre-decease me. My heart went out to Ardie.
    I had a loss in November, a beloved 15 year old dog I had raised since i picked him out from his litter in 1995. In my 80th year i have learned to deal with loss of all kind.
    It is comforting to read your words about your losses.
    Richard Redd, Prof. Emeritus, Art. Lehigh U.

  10. Alec Stansell December 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    In 2009 I sat at my dying mothers bedside in grief and in joy. She had been reduced, physically, to a shadow of her former self, and her painful struggles in her last weeks were so illustrative to me of the struggles all of life entails as we seek to endure here. Even the scrambling chipmunk so appealing to me, yet so obviously struggling so hard, just to live! To live. Life is good, the earth is good, and we are called to be good stewards of it; but as a Christian, death is better – for on that day we share in the victory that Christ won over it for us. On the morning my mother died I looked at her body laying there beside my chair and was filled with gratitude; gratitude for that which she had done well in this life, gratitude even for that which I wish she had not done; for that especially brought home to me the full meaning of victory over death. For death is intrinsically tied to sin – that inescapable weight which she, and all of us, are tethered to in this life. Yet in her death, “in the twinkling of an eye” she knew life as it was always meant to be lived, life perfected, and thanks be to God, life eternal. She was not there – she was gone, and just her body remained – soon to belong to the earth in all its glorious components.
    I too love to sing. It is perhaps my favorite part of worship. When I think of life and death, I long to sing great hymns…

    Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew,
    That I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.

    Breathe on me, breath of God, until my heart is pure,
    Until my will is one with thine, to do and to endure.

    Breathe on me, breath of God, ’till I am wholly thine,
    Until this earthly part of me, glows with thy fire divine.

    Breathe on me, breath of God, so shall I never die,
    But live with thee the perfect life of thy eternity.

    (Edwin Hatch, 1878).

    God bless you Maria, and your family. I hope this holiday season brings many joyful opportunities to you to sing!

  11. Renee December 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. The holidays always remind me of my grandfather (the primary male figure in my life). To me, he was what made Christmas such a joyous time. Every time I hear carols, I think of him. One of the best ways to keep his memory alive is share his (and my) joy of the holidays with my 3-year old daughter. It is truly wonderful to see another generation view the holidays as a very special time of wonder and fun.
    -On a side note, I must confess that I am also a alone-in-the-car singer! 🙂

  12. Stuart Hotchkiss December 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Yes, it is hard work. But the grieving world needs people like you to lead by example. You aced this one! Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. Donna in Delaware December 13, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    I too think of dear loved ones gone from me at this time of the year. I get a bit teary eyed whenever I do, especially for my grandparents in general and grandmother in particular, but the tears are no longer of great sadness. Now the tears are of thankfulness, thankful for their continued presence in my life. The love I feel for them is stronger than ever, and the hope that I can face death as courageously when it’s my turn, as they did. My thoughts are with you and yours this holiday season. Bless you and may you be comforted, today and always.

  14. Sharon December 14, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Endearing and heart felt…I can hear you and your brother…nice!

  15. Denise December 14, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Thank you for your posting. Ironically, my mother passed away on the same day you wrote it, so it personalizes to my heart. She has been stuggling with many health issues for many years and now has found peace without pain, that alone makes being sad about her death selfish. I love this time of year and the traditions she has inbred in me to celebrate it, instead; mourning her loss, we should and will celebrate her life.

  16. Clippy December 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Maria, love this post. Having seen my sister lose her youngest daughter (a victim of violent crime) I have come to think that when a parent loses a child, there is no “getting over” but just, instead, coping. Getting over implies picking one’s self up, dusting off one’s hands and moving on. I don’t think parents can simply “move on” after such a loss, after such a part of them has been taken.
    I am soon to lose my mom to cancer, probably in this holiday season. On some future Christmas, I hope to have the joy in my heart that you describe. I know she is going to a better place. But death is always hardest not on the dying but on those left behind.

  17. Shannon B. in Montana December 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    Thanks for your heartfelt post Maria. My younger brother passed away at age 36 on Dec. 20th last year. He had been sober for two years but was given presciprition drugs for an injury and overdosed. He was a devote Christian as well as myself and family so I know he is at peace with Jesus but it still put a different feel on the holidays. It’s hard to have that same holly jolly feeling when you remember the experience of the past. I am blessed to have my two little boys who find magic in the season as they help me find joy in the little things too. Warm Montana greetings for a blessed Christmas & New Year.

  18. maria barreto December 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your most inner feelings towards life and death. Loss and pain. Life is a lesson, some good and some not so good. It has been over nine years since that horrific day of 9/11, a day that made the largest hole in my heart. Although I have worked so hard to heal, to accept, to understand, it is the wonderful moments and experiences that have helped me heal along the way with family and friends.

  19. annie December 15, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Thank you for such a heartfelt and inspiring post. All day yesterday I thought of your losses and of hope…yes, spring will come again. When the grief is so crushing it is such a comfort to know others are wading through life with similar struggles. Wrapping our hearts around those who passed is intensely hard and painful, so I thank you for taking the time to share so vividly your experiences.

  20. Sally Thierer December 15, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    My family lost our daughter Amanda in 2007 to cancer. She was only 27 and left behind a little girl of five, a mom and dad, a sister and a brother. We all miss her desperately. You are right about your mom, Maria. Both I and my husband are different people. Grief changes you and is etched upon your very soul forever. The holidays seem to drive home that someone is missing and life will never be the same. Thank you for opening your heart and baring your soul. It helps all of us missing someone so desperately to know we aren’t alone.

  21. kate December 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    thank you.

  22. Nancy Nahrgang December 26, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    Thanks Maria for such a lovely message of hope!

  23. Sue December 26, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    My husband and I were just talking about having and working thru feelings of loss this morning…after breakfast with his mom who is battling early onset dementia. Our families have always chosen to live in denial of such emotions, and this choice of coping has paradoxically robbed our families of so much. Better to do the work of respecting our real feelings and living authentically…and genuinely appreciating the small but wondrous things in life than putting on a false exterior that everyone can be comfortable with…but ultimately numb from. And per one of the previous commentors…it’s fine if having Christ in your life is helpful to you, but do not assume that is the answer for everyone. In the path of the Dalai Lama, I respect all religions and what they do for those who believe in them respectfully…but believe true spirituality and goodness comes in not judging and forcing your beliefs on others.

    Maria – a perfect message at year’s end…and reminder of how we can start the new year with fresh perspective and appreciation for what life offers…and how it’s truly the small yet things that fill us up like sharing the joy of singing with a beloved brother. Because you allowed yourself to feel that loss, you clearly were able to regain that full sense of joy for all you shared with David when he was here…and because of that he was with you fully in your heart this Christmas Eve…what a gift!

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