My December Dread: Grieving during Christmas Time

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Sitting in my living room now is a little pine tree called Eve, so named by me because she’s an evergreen – the type of tree that is symbolic of a North American Christmas. At Eve’s base are a handful of assorted ornaments and a box of lights, awaiting my attention to pretty her up.

This is a big step for me – this celebrating Christmas thing. Last year, I wanted none of it – people, pastelles (OK, no. That’s a lie.), presents, pine trees, and any of the cheer they are all associated with in December. Some might suggest I needed some prayers. ‘Tis the reason for the season, after all. However, the spirit world and I were at odds too.

December 16, 2010, my mother’s heart failed her, and she died alone in our family home. She had spent the tenth day before Christmas buying “all kynah dotishness” in a PriceSmart located in west Trinidad. That night we had what turned out to be our last conversation, laughing about her weakness for bulk-buying-encouraging-big-box stores. Most of her purchases would still be in the car trunk to greet me, when I made the journey home to bury her. She had bought enough Carnation evaporated milk to make ponche-de-creme every month for the upcoming year, even though it wasn’t her drink of choice. She was laid to rest on December 21.

After the funeral, I tried to enjoy what I could of the joyous season before I returned to life in Toronto.

After the funeral, I tried to enjoy what I could of the joyous season before I returned to life in Toronto. But my nerves were shot. Smiles were forced in the day, so I could cry alone at night. I couldn’t shake the feeling of walking into my house for the first time after I arrived in Trinidad. All around were signs of life interrupted.

Mummy had begun the Christmas chores of washing everything in sight, which meant the house was in a disarray. Worst of all, it smelled of nothing. No hot ochro and rice, with plenty pigtail. No lingering Estée Lauder perfume from the night before. Not even bleach. By the time Old Year’s Night hit, I couldn’t drink the champagne at my disposal fast enough.

My mother loved Christmas for three main reasons: the smell of ham and fresh bread (that someone else gifted to us), the lights (Ooooh. Gooood. That woman did love some icicle lights!), and the runway of merriment that it provided towards her real doux-doux, Carnival.

That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate Christmas without her, after the first anniversary of her death. I put my friends and family on notice, delivered presents weeks in advance, refused Christmas dinner invitations, and booked a seven-day cruise that kept me out of reach until the dreaded day.

“Yuh sure you want to do that?” asked my friend Rejeanne with concern, when I shared my plan to stay home alone on Christmas Day, and watch whatever dregs my cable-less TV had to offer. I wasn’t opposed to holiday movies – after all it was all make believe, and required no interaction on my part. Even my partner respected my wishes, making it easier to stand my ground.

Grief is a real killjoy. Statistics show that approximately 150,000 people die around the globe each day. Yet, during the holiday season, the death of a loved one seems to leave a wound that is more raw and slower to heal. Those in the path of the bereaved are torn between celebrating and consoling.

From the day Mummy died, all I heard from friends and family – with the best of intentions – was, “Be strong!”

Grief is also ambitious – five stages worth of ambition, documented in the late 60s, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. There’s no telling what stage – or stages – will be present by the time the first holiday rolls around, after a mother/father/grandparent/child has died.

So was I happy with my choice to put the kibosh on Christmas that first anniversary? Yes. I was sad and wanted to be okay with that. From the day Mummy died, all I heard from friends and family – with the best of intentions – was, “Be strong!” And while I discovered the kind of strength it takes to deal with the sudden death of your way-too-vivacious-to-be-gone mother, I needed a break. I know they were just doing their best to support me, but I am grateful that I was also able to express what I needed to do to support myself.

I can think of one more attribute for grief. It’s a personal thing. The ebbs and flows are completely dependent on the person having the experience. And even if you haven’t experienced a personal loss, you can rely on your compassion skills for guidance. You don’t have to say and do the “right” thing – or say and do anything at all. Just be open and accessible.

Lately, Mummy has been occupying my dreams a lot, as the second anniversary of her death approaches. Some dreams paint imaginary events, as if she were still here. In the last slumber-induced episode, she was dressed head to toe in an African Carnival costume, chipping behind her beloved steelband, Starlift. Others take me back to the day of her funeral…Seeing her in the coffin for the first time, and panicking through wretched cries that the gold hoop earrings I chose for her weren’t visible. (She never left the house without earrings.) Peering out at hundreds of faces my eyes couldn’t focus on, as I read the eulogy. Standing by the six-foot-deep grave, when I had requested nine. Suddenly the Triniology – he gimme ah six for a nine! – all made sense.

Planning a funeral in a Trinidad wrapped up in Christmas preparations is no easy feat. The other three feet for the grave never materialized due to the seasonal skeleton staff in the Woodbrook/Mucurapo Cemetery. A couple of opportunistic gravediggers offered their services on the spot, which of course came with an on-the-spot premium price and a request for grog. I declined.

Some call the November/December death-wave a cleansing to make room for new life.

Non-existent funeral personnel wouldn’t be so distressing, if death didn’t seem so pervasive and prevalent at Christmas time. People just seem to die more as the year comes to close, and in threes. At my office, at least one colleague has lost a relative every year for the three years I’ve been there. The most recent, Patsy, is a fellow Trinidadian who just returned from saying goodbye to her grandmother at a Hindu cremation. And although she is having a hard time enjoying the Soca Parang being shared around Facebook, she has two young boys and no luxury to tell Santa to pass back next year.

Some call the November/December death-wave a cleansing to make room for new life. Maybe some are onto something. My cousin’s daughter was born two days before Mummy, her grandaunt, made way for her.

For those reading this, praying for the next two weeks without their beloved to pass, consider this: the time it takes to heal passes with certainty, even though it’s uncertain how long that really is. All you can do is be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your mind, body, and spirit are telling you. Listen. Share your wishes with those closest to you. I’m glad I did. Now Eve and I can get our Christmas on this year with lights that would make Mummy smile.

 

Simone Dalton

A public relations/communications professional, Simone Dalton is a people person, obsessed with the twists and turns of their lives. Her favourite spot for “macoin” is the transit system in her adopted home city, Toronto. Ideas, story leads, and headlines haunt her sleeping and waking hours. As such, she keeps a notebook and her Blackberry handy. Simone is currently training her writer's muscle through her blog, simonedalton.blogspot.com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicola.a.williamson Nicola Anne Williamson

    This will help many people. Beautifully written.

    • http://www.facebook.com/simone.dalton.10 Simone Dalton

      Thank you Nicola!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=520136632 Francette Hart-Ramsey

    Thank you for this. I’ve recently lost my mother and grandmother, and it’s not easy to continue smiling for my children for the season.
    Thank you for showing me that it will get better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=189765564059 OUTLISH Magazine

    Francette Hart-Ramsey Glad it helped. Simone thought she’d depress people, but I told her nah…it’ll help someone. Glad it did that for you. Hope you get through this Christmas. Hugs to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681816684 Nicola Anne Williamson

    Not depressing. Beautifully written and such a helpful article. Comments left on magazine as well.

  • Sophie T.

    Simone, this is so honest and so beautifully written.

    • http://www.facebook.com/simone.dalton.10 Simone Dalton

      Thanks Sophie!

  • http://www.facebook.com/darciebelle Darcelle Weekes

    Sims I’m lost for words. Your inner beauty and strength so beautifully poured out. Your mom was and would always be overly proud of you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/effuah.alleyne Effuah Alleyne

    A beautiful memoir..

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristal.ettienne Kristal Ettienne

    Simply put….heartfelt and moving, your love for her shines through.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000061154817 Gonzales Frances

    So sad 2 hear,Miss siMone dalton!christmas is also a tough n unhappy time 4 me as well…my mom passed away 6 yrs n evry1 knws christmas isn’t christmas without ur loved 1′s there!I miss her n my grandmother like crazy!ma’am,I knw it’s hard(I’m still grieving)but kp d faith,everyday wud nt b d same…I will say a prayer 4 u too!ok?*hugs*4 u