The second Christmas after Eliza died, David and I ran away to Mexico for the holiday. There were some members of David's family who didn't understand this decision and who were upset by it. I don't know exactly how they felt; I only know that I was hurt by the way they responded to our decision. To clarify: I was hurt and I was pissed. I didn't understand how they could expect us to participate in a "normal" Christmas, how they could think for a moment that we would want to "celebrate" Christmas by opening gifts and stuffing our faces with food when our baby girl was dead. What kind of joy was I supposed to get from a holiday that I would never get to share with her?
I have a little more distance now, and I can see the situation with a little more objectivity. That doesn't mean I've let go of the hurt, but I think I can understand a bit more where they were coming from.
I think people who were not as intimately connected to the grief as David and I were, who weren't feeling the gaping hole of our loss on a daily basis, were missing David and me more than they were missing Eliza. This is just how it was. They didn't know her except in the abstract idea that I was pregnant and we were going to have a baby. Their day-to-day lives wouldn't be disrupted by her birth or her death. Their lives were only disrupted when we quit showing up for things we'd previously shown up for. They missed us.
But they clearly weren't practicing empathy, either. They weren't trying to imagine how painful and impossible a return to regular traditions would be for us, given that everything we had planned and imagined for our lives had just fallen to pieces.
I think they wanted healing for us, I think they wanted peace, I think they wanted us to be in a place we simply couldn't be. They wanted us to be able to celebrate the good things we still had in our lives--our families, the Christmas traditions we shared with them--and we simply weren't able to do that.
At the time, though, it felt cruel and dismissive of Eliza, as though we should be "over" her loss. One member of David's family actually told me (via e-mail) that we obviously didn't need support from them since we didn't want to have anything to do with them. It was a shitty and unfair thing to say (no, I'm not over it), but I also think it reflects an ongoing disappointment that we all kind of shared.
David and I needed things to be different because Eliza wasn't here. We needed her death to matter because her life mattered so much to us. The problem was that, at least at first, the way that her death affected us felt entirely negative. It had to be negative. We were just trying to survive grief, and that meant that the things that used to bring us joy were no longer pleasurable. It felt like everything had been tainted by loss. I honestly didn't know how I would ever feel genuine happiness again. Life was exhausting and I quit showing up for anything that wasn't absolutely crucial (ie. work or therapy).
The changes that David and I had to make in order to survive were changes that made other people sad, too. We weren't up for going out to dinner. We didn't want to meet your baby. We didn't want to see your fucking pictures of your family in Disneyland. We didn't want to shop for birthday gifts or send birthday cards or plan weekend getaways or do anything. We had nothing else to do, it's true. But we couldn't just fill our lives back up the way they used to be. We had to leave a space for Eliza--a space that she would never occupy, but a space that would make her absence conspicuous. And at first, that space had to be huge. It had to be big enough to hold her and all our grief.
That first year, it meant that we had no room for Christmas at all. Our sadness was too big. There was no way. I don't think there is anything that anyone could have done to make us want to go through the motions of a traditional Christmas, but what helped most was to know that other people were leaving space for Eliza, too.
The truth was, I was glad when other people made those spaces, too. My mom didn't put up a tree the year after Eliza died, and she said we should just skip gifts that year, and I was glad and relieved that I wasn't the only one who didn't want to do that stuff. I think I was hoping for something similar from David's family, and I was hurt when that didn't happen. I needed to know that people were making space for Eliza. And people did--everyone who made donations that first year, who remembered her on her birthday and who mentioned her in their Christmas cards--those were people making space for Eliza in the busy craziness of the holiday season, even if they didn't really realize it. I was so grateful.
I think maybe if my in-laws had said we wouldn't exchange gifts, or if they had offered some kind of accommodation to acknowledge how devastated we were and how different things should have been... Well, we still would have gone to Mexico, but I think I would be less bitter about it now. The problem is that they didn't know what to do and I didn't know what to ask for. It's only now that I can look back and realize what I needed and try to find the words to describe it.
Leaving space for Eliza (and for my grief) at Christmastime still matters to me, but we are able to leave it open in a different way. There is room for Christmas traditions, but we make sure that our Christmas also has space for an acknowledgement of the girl we've lost. We weren't capable of this just a few years ago, but we can handle it now. Our wish that Eliza were here with us may not be formally spoken aloud this year, but only because it won't have to be. It's obvious that she's missing because we have made all these spaces for her--a candle in the window, a stocking by the fireplace, a collection of her ornaments on the tree, a donation in her honor, a display of cards sent on her birthday from friends and family in the dining room. Having those spaces for Eliza makes it easier for me to fill up all the other space in the house with the Christmas traditions I'd always hoped to do with my kids--a nativity scene surrounded by angels, a sparkling tree, Zuzu's own felt tree on the wall, a bunch of wrapped gifts underneath, a wreath on the door, lights outside. Our house is filled up with Christmas, but Christmas has space for Eliza, too.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're looking for a way to find your way back to celebrating the holidays, or you're not sure how to handle the holidays with a loved one who is grieving a loss, my advice is to do what you can do, but understand that it makes sense to leave yourself some space.
It can be hard because so much of the time, Christmas seems to be about perfection, about being thankful for blessings and being the perfect hostess, having the perfect gifts, making the perfect food, having the perfect fun. The loss of a loved one forces us to see through the sparkle and shine to the dirty underbelly of pressures and expectations we can't fulfill. But of course, the real meaning of Christmas is about being broken and imperfect and finding improbable and miraculous hope in spite of all our losses and all our shortcomings.
Maybe, like my friend K, this is the year you put up the tree but skip all the ornaments. Maybe this is the year you decide to make charitable donations instead of giving tangible gifts. Maybe you order Chinese food and skip the turkey or ham or lasagna or whatever the old tradition was. Maybe you can't show up for dinner, so you arrive in time for hot chocolate and dessert. Maybe you skip the Christmas Eve church service (with its crying babies and lisping angels) and you take a walk outside and breathe in the cold air and send your love and your prayers out into the universe that way. Maybe you find comfort in the old traditions and you add a new one--a candle lit at dinner, in honor of those you wish were with you; two twenty dollar bills, one for the Salvation Army bucket and one for the volunteer bell ringer; a breakfast of pretzels and glazed donuts, or whatever your pregnancy craving might have been. You might take away or you might add something new, but either way you can make a space to acknowledge the person you miss.
Of course, you may feel like we did and have to get away from it entirely and run away to Mexico (where I just felt sad that I was missing Eliza and sad that I was missing Christmas even though I didn't want to be there for Christmas either). I needed so much to escape from Christmas entirely that I remember feeling somewhat surprised that other bereaved parents on my timeline weren't doing the same thing. Everyone handles loss (and the holidays) differently, and there's no right or wrong answer. But if you're in a place where you're seeking a kind of balance between the hurt and the joy, I hope that you can find your own way to fill up the holiday and still leave space for the one(s) you are missing. I hope you can find the strength to ask for what you need this year, and that you'll find the support from your friends and family as they make space in their holiday to accommodate you and your grief.
Keep in mind, too, that this gets easier as time goes on. Those first two Christmases without Eliza... I could barely breathe. Christmas 2010 was like a black hole of nothingness and Christmas 2011 was like salt in a raw and gaping wound. Two years later, (two short, long years) my bruised and stitched-up heart is filled to brim... though of course it goes without saying that among all the blessings that stretch my heart to bursting, there will always be a space in it that only Eliza could fill.