Christmas and loss

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.

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Sadness and joy can co-exist. That’s a lesson I’m learning and re-learning this Christmas season.

IMG_0216I 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.

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Here are two previous posts about Christmas:

Homesick for Christmas

Kris Kringle

 

 

 

Spring is slow in coming

Spring is slow in coming this year. I sit in the living room early in the morning, early April. Out the window I see blue sky, bright sun. It looks warm but the furnace was on when I got up, there’s frost on the grass, and the rhododendron leaves were curled as they are after chilly nights. The first days of April have been marked by repeated snow, cold winds. This is often the way.

Easter ushered in this wintry pattern. Easter Sunday, I met a friend for a walk under gray skies. Walking and talking with a long time friend seemed like the perfect way to acknowledge the day. I’m never quite sure how to celebrate Easter but always feel the pull to do so. I’m not religious, don’t go to church, but there’s something deeply rooted in me that wants to pause, praise, celebrate. A human need to mark the seasonal shift, celebrate the return of sun and warmth, mark the season of growth and rejuvenation.

And there’s also a pull to tradition. I grew up with new Easter clothes, church, Easter dinner. The first year I lived in my house, the house I bought a few months after my mom died, I invited friends for Easter dinner. Not only was it Easter but also my mother’s birthday, April 3rd. I served the meal on my new dining table, placed near the picture window looking out on the back garden.

I set the table with my grandmother’s china that I’d brought back from my mother’s Plateshouse, fine china, white porcelain with tiny sprigs of pink roses. I bought a pink tablecloth to use with the china, used the sterling I’d also brought from mom’s house. I don’t remember what we ate, I just remember the table set with china and silver, set with nostalgia, set with continuity and memory.

But there was also some way in which that dinner felt like playing dress up. That Easter dinner, with the formal place settings, morphed in subsequent years to a more casual Easter brunch, often on my back porch, glassed in for the spring season, heated with a space heater and guests warned to wear sweaters. This was a potluck meal, served on my everyday stoneware that I bought in a discount store when I tired of eating off of mismatched plates left behind by roommates.

The brunch tradition lasted for a number of years and then ended as people’s lives moved in different directions. Since then I’ve found different ways to mark the new season. Many years I go to a friend’s Passover seder—I appreciate the ceremonial meal, the connection with friends, the deep joy I know my friend feels as he brings friends and family together. A few years I’ve joined another friend for Easter services at a monastery in Vermont. And often all I need is an hour or two raking in the garden, a walk with a friend, a trip to Andrew’s Greenhouse to buy flats of their field grown pansies, which I plant in pots and place by the front door.

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