My apologies for my long absence. This has been a time of transition and upheaval. I left my job of 17 years in early October with a plan to focus on my own writing, do some freelance work, and teach. I was—am—eager to move into this next phase and also a bit apprehensive and sorry to leave my colleagues.
I thought the job transition would be the primary story of this fall and winter. But, sadly, overshadowing the work transition has been the ill health and death of Barbara, my older and only sister.
A couple of days after my final day at work, I got a call that she was gravely ill. Her health started failing last winter and in April she went into a care home in England, where she’s lived for many years. I visited her in June and then flew to England again in October, after I got the emergency call. She rallied a bit while I was there but then went rapidly downhill through November. She died in early December
I’ve been writing during these months of blog silence and have just posted three backdated entries–I invite you to check them out:
Sometimes I need a list (October 26)
Rain then sun (November 8)
“Hope is the thing…” (November 14)
For now, here are some reflections on Christmas this year.
Sadness and joy can co-exist. That’s a lesson I’m learning and re-learning this Christmas season.
I put the Christmas tree up a week ago. I bought the tree in late November because the garden center quickly runs out of the small, table top trees I like. It languished in the dark, cold garage for weeks. I dragged my heels about putting it up because I was wary of the emotional impact, weighing the possible—probable—sadness against the pleasure I get from bringing the green and light into the house.
And perhaps if I’d waited until Christmas eve to decorate the tree, had the twelve lessons and carols service from King’s College, Cambridge, playing in the background, remembered sitting with Barbara in her English home watching the service in real time, the sadness would have deepened.
But this year I simply felt my usual mix of nostalgia and pleasure as I draped the white lights and hung the familiar ornaments, a few that have been handed down from our dad’s childhood tree, a few that friends have given me, some I’ve bought over the years. Under the tree I placed the wooden village that was under dad’s tree. I did not put Kris Kringle on the top. This is another ornament from dad’s childhood but Kris is old and fragile and now retired to the china cabinet. Instead I perched a cardinal, honoring our mom and her love of these birds.
As often happens when we’re living through an experience, gifts float our way. On a friend’s recommendation I listened to a recent On Being podcast. Krista Tippett’s guest was Pauline Boss, who teaches and writes about ambiguous loss, that loss you feel when a loved one is alive but lost to you for some reason, the loss I felt for my sister over the last few months of her life.
She talked about the “myth of closure.” “‘Closure’ is a terrible word in human relationships,” she said. “Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them—when they’re lost you still care about them. It’s a different dimension, but you can’t just turn it off.” Grief continues and in some way gets integrated into our lives.
She also disputed the idea of the five stages of grief. She said that Kubler-Ross intended those stages to describe the experience of people living with terminal illness, not the experience of those left behind after a death. Instead, grief is episodic, kaleidoscopic, appearing and receding.
My grief for my sister often feels muted, subterranean and then fissures open and sadness bubbles up—I had a day like that on a recent Saturday. I took part in my usual Saturday morning routines—coffee with a friend, farmers’ market with another friend—but then in the afternoon I retreated to the couch and opened to a deep sense of loss. I sat with the feeling until it passed, as these feelings do, but was left with a lingering lethargy of spirit.
But even when I’m not consciously feeling sad, I know my mind and body are absorbing the loss on some level. I read an essay by the Irish writer Derek O’Connor about his grief at his wife’s death. He describes a conversation with a friend who is a scientist: “She details the neuroscience of grief, how mourning is the process by which the brain repairs itself.” The neuroscience of grief—I want to know more.
I talked with my cousin Kathy shortly after Barbara died. She lives on the west coast and we see each other rarely but she’s family, she’s continuity. Her voice sounds like her mother’s voice and I remember that her mother sounded like my mother—echoes rippling out, bridging time and loss. Her parents and her only sibling are also dead. “We’re adult orphans,” she said. I take that in.
I spent Christmas eve at a dinner party with old and new friends and gathered with other friends for a meal on Christmas day. Both days were filled with laughter and connection, the warmth of good company. On Christmas day we toasted those who were missing from the circle, including my sister, and in doing so made a space for them around the table.
Someone once told me that decorations on a tree at winter solstice represent souls of the dead. A quick Google search yields one website that makes that point and then others that say the decorations represent wishes for the year to come. I choose to think of the tree as both—a nod to memories of those who have died and a nod, as well, to life and light in the darkest season.
Here are two previous posts about Christmas: