I spent the first Thanksgiving after Cassie died escaping to a conference in Cape Town, South Africa and tried to pretend that the holidays didn’t even exist. I moved through them as if in a fog, distancing myself emotionally, because to connect with them would remind me of all the holidays Cassie and I spent together and that was just too painful. I felt like I lived in a different universe from those who were merrily bustling around, getting ready for Christmas.
I didn’t see the beauty in the holidays, instead I focused on the starkness of winter, trees stripped bare of leaves, sunset in the late afternoon, endless dark nights and relentless cold. To escape, I would lie in bed and imagine that it was spring and focus on sunshine, warm breezes and the scent of new mown grass.
I went to Betty’s Bay, a little seaside village on the South African coast just a short distance from Cape Town, with some friends after the conference. November was early spring, and I sat on the warm sand gazing at the rugged mountains in the distance, the jagged black rock formations, the beach littered with pink and gold cactus flowers. Sitting on a rock in front of turquoise blue water crashing against the cliffs, I imagined myself moving there. I would give away or sell all my earthy possessions, leave behind the house where Cassie grew up that now echoed with her footsteps and my son and I would start a new life far, far away from everything that had happened and everyone who knew us. But the pain of her loss followed me all the way to South Africa, half a world away. I stayed with my friends and slept in their daughter’s bedroom and at night all the glow in the dark ceiling stars, that were the exact replica of those that Cassie placed in her bedroom, blinked down on me. In that first year it was all about escape, but unfortunately, I did find that wherever I went I was there.
After about two years, the holidays began to change for me and I started to feel some of that old magic return. Instead of focusing on material gifts, I began to explore the gifts of the soul that Cassie had given me, especially our continued connection in dream time, which brought me some peace. Like Diane in The Dreaming Road, I sought out a 16-year old girl from the Christmas tree at the mall to be my angel and bought her all the presents I would have given Cassie if she was still alive. I gave her friends a “Merry Christmas from Heaven” ornament and dug out Cassie’s ornament that said, “Baby’s First Christmas” from the deep recesses of a box and hung it on the tree. I felt that she would want me to keep her memory alive.
Looking back from the perspective of years, I don’t feel that my emotional distancing during the holidays was necessarily a bad thing. There’s only so much pain we can handle and then we begin to shut down. And it still seems to me like its difficult to find a place at the holiday table when you are grieving. So many are uncomfortable just being with someone who has lost a child and we often feel we must pretend that we are doing okay.
I didn’t move to South Africa, I stayed in the home where Cassie grew up and made some new memories. For several years, I prepared Thanksgiving dinner for all Cassie’s friends the Saturday evening after the holiday and it helped us stay connected. Since I no longer had a future with Cassie on this side of the veil, memories of her, shared by friends, were the best gifts I could receive. I now try to use the holidays to truly appreciate all those who care about me. Death is a great teacher that nothing in this life is permanent, so I try to seize the precious moments to be with those I love while they are still on this side of the veil.
If you are coping with the loss of a child over the holidays, and if you need to, you can just call “time-out” and take a year off as I did when I escaped to South Africa. Or you can surround yourself with family and friends who will acknowledge your journey through grief and loss and let you express your emotions. Do something to honor your child in a way that has meaning for you during the holidays. You can also have an “imaginary” conversation with your child, although it really isn’t imaginary because our loved ones in spirit can hear us, and talk about how you’re feeling. And if you get real quiet and ask them a question, don’t be surprised if you hear an answer in your mind. Or you can write them a holiday letter. Again, you may receive a sign from them that they’ve heard your message. The holidays will get better in time but for me they still remain bittersweet.