Memory, Contemplation, and Maybe
Even Joy During the Holidays
Holiday—the word often conjures delight. To some people, holiday means vacation—a time free from obligations, a time to rest, relax, and celebrate.
When you’re suffering the heartbreak of loss, the mere mention of the word holiday often generates dread.
“I have nothing to celebrate,” you might think, or even say. You might not have the energy, desire, or inclination to even acknowledge such an alien concept as a holiday.
I understand. My seven-year-old daughter Alexa died from brain cancer on November 2, 1986. I have shadowy recollections of the holidays that followed a few weeks after she died. I was in a fog. I went through the motions, but my heart wasn’t keyed toward anything resembling a celebration.
I don’t remember Thanksgiving. I do remember that while unpacking Christmas ornaments, a former boss called to offer me a job. As part of my brain listened to him speak, I held a precious handmade star on which Alexa had written her name. Choked by sobs, I said a few words and hung up the phone.
I’m several years on in my grieving, but no matter how many days pass from that November 2, I continue to struggle with some aspects of holidays and other celebrations. Some anniversaries bring a cloud with them that hovers for days—or longer—and only after they pass do I feel relief. Throughout the years, though, I have healed enough that I can celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other occasions, even if many such events are bittersweet.
Beyond the pangs of loss and bittersweet moments, however, I also have progressed far enough in my journey to the point that I can even experience joy. And it’s joy that is often missing from our lives as bereaved families. I missed that joy after Alexa died. I hungered for it. I was afraid that joy would forever be the missing guest at any celebration table.
By some gift of healing and grace, I have been able to recapture—and even relive—some of that joy. A treasured photo of Alexa helps me. The photo was taken a month before her oncologist used tender, compassionate words to tell me additional chemo would be futile. But in the photo, we don’t know that and she doesn’t know that.
My treasured photo was taken at Alexa’s first—and only—dance recital. She has brain cancer. She’s thin, and because she has no hair, she’s wearing a wig. But she’s also wearing her costume for her class’s Scottish dance. Aside from the illness, the wig, and her thinness, however, her eyes shine like stars in my memory. Her head is tilted back and a smile lights up her face. She radiates pure joy. Some memories bring with them a twinge of sadness and sometimes even regret. But this photo holds no sadness for me or for anyone who sees it. When I look at it, all I see is joy. When I look at it, I feel that joy. I smile and once again, I experience the joy of Alexa, the joy she brought not only to my life but also to the lives of many others.
It’s joy—that spark—that we miss so dearly when our loved ones die. It’s joy that seems so elusive, especially in the early days, weeks, months, and even years of our grieving. It’s joy that seems like it will never ever return. The loss of joy further compounds our sadness. We yearn for it.
I wish I had a magic spell to bring back that joy. I don’t. However, I do know of a way to capture, even if for fleeting moments, some of the joy we crave after loss.
Like Alexa’s dance recital photo, I imagine that somewhere you have a memory of the joy your loved one brought to your life. I imagine you have a photo that captures that joy. Give yourself the gift of contemplating that photo or memory. As you do, reach into your heart and retrieve the gift of joy your loved one brought to your life. Relive the time captured in the photo or in your memory. Once again, feel that joy. Perhaps for a few precious moments, you can take a holiday from your sorrow, reach for, and hang onto that joy.
In this season of holidays and giving, remember to give yourself the gifts of compassion, patience, and contemplation. In giving yourself these gifts, also be receptive to joy. Remember to look for joy—you just might find it, and once again be able to live it and share it.