Grief: Piece by Piece

Christmas trees are better in threes!

My favorite part about Christmas is the Christmas tree.

My favorite Christmas memories are tied to the process and people involved in decorating our family trees each year.

Every year growing up, I was lucky enough to decorate one tree at my house with my parents and siblings, and then go out to my grandparents’ house (they lived one house behind us) and decorate their tree with them. Even before Brian and I got married, he hiked with me through dry fields, muddy tractor trails, and knee-high snow to pick out not THE perfect tree, but the perfect TREES! In the years since, we have made memories that I will always cherish while decorating our own trees, and during that process, we often also have the opportunity to pay homage to the memories of the past.

One of the things that I remember the most about family tree decorating is singing along to the John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together album – from vinyl record, to cassette, to CD. The first song on the album is The Twelve Days of Christmas, and not only did every member of my family mimic the voices of each character who sings, but when we got to FFFIIIIIIVEEEE GOOOLLLDDD RIIINNNNNGSSSS we sung it at the top of our lungs. Between the 5th Day of Christmas and the 9th, we anxiously awaited our opportunity to add a hearty “badum-bum-bum” to our count of gold rings. From the youngest amongst us to the oldest, this song and this album always brought lots of goofy singing and laughter to the decorating process.

In true Muppet fashion, their album brings delight to little ones. But they also tackle broader issues that resonate in the hearts of the adults in the room. As a child, I always loved that my sister and mom (both altos) broke into harmony while my dad’s tenor carried the melody throughout, and being young, my brother and I always sang along with him. While singing along merrily, I never really understood why my mom would turn serious and sometimes shed a tear while singing The Peace Carol, When the River Meets the Sea, or Noel: Christmas Eve 1913. Decorating the Christmas tree is a happy time for happy people! There’s no crying in tree decorating! Didn’t she know the rules?

Well, as a 37-year old with some life experience and some loss experience under my belt, I understand better the source of her tears. The songs that occasionally brought a tear to my mom’s eye touch my heart all these years later. They speak to difficulties, injustices, and our desperate need for love to shine in the darkness of our world, so that if you listen closely, you can’t help but take their plea to heart. In understanding the source of my mom’s tears all those years ago, I also better understand the joy that she was intentional about finding and creating in all that she did – especially during the Christmas season.

The joy, love, and laughter that was always present as we decorated is the reason why the Christmas tree, and the people around it, are my favorite memories, rather than the gifts that would eventually end up under it. To this day, whenever Brian and I attend a Christmas party, go on a drive to see Christmas lights, or are somewhere shopping, the Christmas trees always catch my attention first and warm my heart. While that’s all still true, on December 8, 2015, my mom died after an eleven year battle with cancer, and that year’s Christmas tree was the first in a new reality.

Let me back up a bit…

Up until November of 2015, through all of her surgeries and chemo treatments, mom had always been incredibly mobile and was able to determine how and when she did everything. But in the weeks leading up to my mom’s death, we faced new and terrifying realities every day. After tumors were found on my mom’s spine, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She began losing the ability to move her legs on her own, and when they moved – through her own power or with the assistance of others – the pain she experienced was immediate and overwhelming. Everything about anything changed.

As soon as my mom was placed in hospice care, the Red Cross was contacted to initiate the process of bringing my brother home from Afghanistan. My bosses at Northwest Bank were incredible in allowing me to immediately take my remaining vacation until the Family and Medical Leave Act was initiated to protect my job while I helped care for my mom. My brother was home within a few days, and our whole family and many of our family friends rallied to make sure that everything that could be being done…was. When it was apparent that mom would need to remain downstairs and comfortable as her mobility deteriorated, a hospital bed was brought in to make that possible. Brian and I brought our truck out to my parents’ house so that we could move their dining room table to our basement for the duration of mom’s battle. Doing so was a simple physical act, but it ended up being an incredibly symbolic one, too.

As we took the dining room table apart, my mind immediately went to memories of family dinners, gross out nights, craft projects, and game nights. Dinner in our family was always served at the dinner table. When someone needed help with homework, it happened at the dinner table. Puzzles – literal and figurative ones – were solved at that table. Some of our most important family conversations happened there, as did some of our funniest. So much of who we were as a family was nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple, and as we loaded it into the bed of the truck, I remember thinking that everything I knew about our family’s reality was about to be taken apart piece by piece, too.

Two days after my mom died, Brian and I went Christmas tree shopping with my brother, sister-in-law, and their boys. We had so much fun watching two-year-old Wyatt determining which tree was the best. His opinion changed as quickly as his big blue eyes could scan the field. Finally, after much deliberation, a handsome, seven-foot tall Douglas Fir was chosen for my sister-in-law’s parent’s family room, while a much smaller, not-quite-Charlie-Brown tree was chosen by Wyatt for their front porch. Wyatt’s joy was infectious and I was excited to pick out our tree(s) next.

After Brandon, Liz, and the boys paid for their trees and made their way to lunch and nap time, Brian and I looked for our trees. Without the exuberance of a cute smallish person, the Christmas tree farm became unnervingly desolate and quiet. Every other year when we’ve gone tree shopping, I have longed for solitude – I wanted the run of the place so that no one else had a shot at my perfect trees. That year, all I wanted was the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the upcoming holiday to surround me. What I got instead was the whisper of the icy wind.

Brian and I spread out looking for our perfect fir tree – spruces are too prickly and cedars are too flimsy. While I was walking my row alone, the wind picked up and stirred the woods. Tears sprang to my eyes. With the rustle of branches and blast of arctic air, I acknowledged for the first time that my mom wouldn’t be waiting at home to lay witness to the perfect trees. My knees buckled and my chest grew tight. For the first time ever, I didn’t really care about Christmas trees, or even Christmas in general for that matter.

Our trees sat in our garage for the next few days drying off and letting their limbs down after being wrapped for their journey home. I was in no hurry to bring them inside. My emotional well-being was safer with them in the garage. I could visit them if I was feeling festive, but while they sat in the garage there was no pressure to observe tree-decorating traditions. If I wasn’t observing tree-decorating traditions, I didn’t have to observe the absence of so many of their origin.

A few days after mom’s funeral and a few days before Christmas, I finally decided that it was time to suck it up and decorate. Furniture was rearranged, trees came in, and decorations came out of hiding. I connected my phone to a set of speakers, turned on John Denver and the Muppets, found (and untangled) the first string of lights, and I set to work. By the time I had gotten the lights untangled, plugged in, and had begun weaving the lights into the branches, The Peace Carol‘s opening lyrics poured into the room…

“The garment of life be it tattered and torn..”

I started sobbing. I sat down on the floor, buried my head in my hands, and was overwhelmed with grief. When the tears began to subside and I was able to catch my breath, I stood up, balled the lights up haphazardly, stuck them in the tree, and walked away. That’s how everything stayed for the rest of 2015: one tree completely barren; one with a tangled string of lights discarded within its branches. It was such a sad state of affairs, but so was the Christmas season for me that year. There were occasions when I walked past the tree and felt nothing but sadness. A few times I felt bitter. Sometimes nothing. I did end up plugging in that lonely line of lights on two separate occasions – a nod to the persistence of a season that I just wanted to be over.

The following year, we went tree shopping again. I was determined to feel the joy of Christmas. Brian and I spread out, found five trees to bring home with us, and after a few drying days, we began to set them up. While decorating that night, I played all of the songs that my family had always decorated ours trees to. There were a lot that made me smile and several that made me cry. With no smallish children running around bursting with Christmas joy, the sorrow of mom’s absence tugged at my heart a little harder when her favorite songs would play. But when I was done, the whole tree had lights and the decorations were all hung.

As I decorated, each ornament was placed more deliberately than in past years. I took the time to remember the stories and moments that are tied to each little snowman, frog, black lab, or Santa ornament. I missed my mom terribly as I decorated and it was a lot of the little things that were the hardest. But by acknowledging my sadness while decorating, I was more attentive to the love and memories that are a part of my fondness for Christmas trees and the joy with which they fill a room (or two if you live in my house.) My 2016 moments of grief weren’t necessarily easier, but they didn’t stop me in my festive tracks that year either. I was happy to take this step forward.

In late November of 2017, I began a new job working for the United Methodist Church. Because of the time of year, I hit the ground running helping to prepare for the Advent season. All of a sudden, my entire working day was devoted to preparing for Christmas. There was a lot of decorating, Christmas music galore, worship prep and practice, and the totality of it consumed my festive energy and emotion. When it was time for Brian and I to talk about Christmas trees of our own, I just didn’t have it in me. Brian understood and didn’t bat an eye before saying “okay” as he pulled me in for a hug.

The decorations stayed tucked away.

There was no John Denver and the Muppets.

Our house looked devoid of any Christmas spirit.

And that was okay…

2018 was the same. My festive energies were expended preparing the church for Christmas, and I had nothing in reserve with which to face decorating traditions at home. Brian understood, said “okay”, and pulled me into a hug. We celebrated Christmas in other places and found tremendous joy in the season, but our home remained a space to acknowledge what was missing.

This year, when Brian has asked me if I wanted to go Christmas tree shopping, I have been non-committal. I want to, but I don’t. He lets me vacillate. Throughout this Advent season, I have expended tons of festive energy preparing the church once again, but this year I find myself with a little festivity left over. I’ve listened to carols (included John Denver and the Muppets) while going about my days. I have a few decorations out in our house. I wrote (a limited number of) Christmas cards for the first time in forever. And I don’t dread any of our family traditions. There’s still no tree, but that’s okay.

What I’ve learned over the last few years is that grief isn’t linear. In 2015, I was a wreck when facing our family’s Christmas traditions without my mom. In 2016, I made a massive step forward and not only decorated our own trees, but had a blast helping two of my incredibly cute nephews decorate my dad’s Christmas tree. A few tears were shed as the Muppets sang, but my nephews’ joy spread throughout the room and the season. In 2017 and 2018, I was able to enjoy the festivities that occurred elsewhere, but didn’t have the emotional energy to tackle traditions at home. In 2019, some of the season’s light is reappearing in our home. Brian’s patience and understanding have been remarkable as I have navigated my walk through the grief process – I couldn’t have made it this far without him.

As I write this, so many of our family’s Christmas traditions are alive and well.

Others have changed.

A few ended when my mom’s life did.

Several months after my mom died, Brian and I loaded the family dinner table back into our truck, returned it to my parents’ house, and set it back up for use. In the years since, many family dinners have been enjoyed around it, game nights have been held, puzzles completed, and the imagination of my four nephews has materialized right before our eyes. Those incredible boys, who each embody so many of the best parts of who my mom was, bring life and love into every room and every tradition we observe. The hope, peace, joy, and love of this season has remained through the most difficult times and carried us forward into new realities.

In a few days, we’ll all be around the dining room table together, and it’s a pretty incredible gift to realize that so much of who we are becoming as a family will be nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple. My mom may not be physically present at the table anymore, but she is there in every other imaginable way. As we look to celebrate Christmas, everything I know about our family’s reality is being assembled anew…

…piece by piece.

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