As a kid, I used to lie in bed with my parents or sisters and laugh at the silliest things. We stared at the ceiling and cackled intermittently, each one’s jokes fueling the other. We laughed about people at school, old photos, things we saw on TV, people’s accents. Sometimes we even made up off-color Christmas songs, the lyrics to which I won’t share here.
“I couldn’t hear anything the two of you were saying,” my mom told my sister and me once, after an occasion described above. “I just heard explosive giggling every few minutes.”
When I think back on those times, they seem like the most distant memories. Sometimes I feel like those memories must belong to another person. They don’t seem like my own anymore.
My mom passed away last year, and I still wonder how many stories died with her. I remember things we used to laugh at, things I did that she thought were cute, that she told and retold. For several of them, she was the only one present to see me do them. The last time I visited with her, she recounted memories of her father, things about my grandfather that I had never known. Maybe they were even things that she hadn’t told anyone else. When you die, you take so much with you.
The last few years, holidays have had this “out of sorts” tint over them for me. I attributed this to having divorced parents, siblings with different parents, or skeletons in the family closet. The truth is, we all have these to different degrees. No family is without its share of tragedy, secrets, and loss.
Placing the blame on things that were well beyond my control didn’t help, of course. Last year, wherever I went at Christmas, I felt like I didn’t belong. It was nothing to do with the people who hosted me. They made me feel welcome, but things were different. There was no bringing my mom or my dad back, or un-divorcing them. There was no going back to our old living room, where we used to celebrate Christmas.
Memories that used to generate feelings of warmth, safety, and amusement only brought tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart. Gone was the guarantee that I would be able to re-live them, year after year. In its place was only a sense of the unknown, of anxiety and sadness.
I struggled against the facts that my parents were gone, as distant and fleeting as the memories of how they used to be. After processing the emotions that trailed behind those facts, I realized that things just change. At times, the circumstances of that change are beyond your control.
There is only one thing you can do then, and that is to accept it.
I guess it’s why stories like Game of Thrones or even Gone with the Wind hit me so hard. The family is together, until it’s not, blown apart by wars (of the heart, the literal kind you fight, financial ones, or all the above). Then change is an unstoppable force. There is no going back to how things were. If and when the family members reunite, they are as different as night and day.
It certainly makes for an interesting story, especially when it’s not happening to you. When it does happen to you, your first instinct is to struggle against it or blame it for your problems, to use it to justify your depression. “I am this way because…”
Does any of that actually help? I think not.
I go back and forth between thinking myself mature and thinking I should have grown up sooner. I had to mature quickly in some ways, but certain parts of adulthood have been difficult for me. Change is one of them. It isn’t even specific to adulthood, but I would argue that it is scarier to face as an adult.
I didn’t consciously realize this, when I was sitting in the corner at a party last year and lamenting the loss of how things used to be. How could I work in IT and not be good at adjusting to change? But this is that faulty, black-and-white thinking — changes in technology are not as big of a deal for me as changes in tradition and relationships.
When someone dies or leaves, you do not only grieve the person, but all the parts of your life that they touched. If you don’t consciously realize this is what you are doing when you are doing it, the pain increases because you’re wondering what is wrong with you and how to fix something that cannot be fixed.
Nothing is wrong with you. Family changes, and it hurts.
It happens to everyone. That does not take away from your right to grieve.
I have been thinking more lately about the family and life I have created since moving far away from my hometown. I had to process a lot of emotions before I could fully begin to appreciate my creation. I did not draw some of this family into my life until I had gone through these conscious realizations and found more productive ways of dealing with them.
It helps to remember that some are not fortunate enough to have had good memories or close relationships to grieve. The silver lining in missing someone is that you were once with them in a way that brought fullness to your heart.
Wishing things to be other than what they are is a part of being human. We all do it at times. There is nothing wrong with taking time off to grieve. However, acceptance is what helps us move forward and create the new.
This year, I am blessed to revel in new love and the support of steady friendships that have been developing over the last couple of years. I may cry and miss what has gone before, but that will not take away from the understanding of what I have now and how much there is to appreciate.
If you aren’t quite there yet — give yourself time.