Experiencing Grief and Joy at the Holidays

The following is a Perspective I recorded for KQED. You can listen to it here.

I’m a holiday person. Starting with the Thanksgiving ritual of going around the table and ending with staying up ‘til midnight on New Year’s Eve, I treasure the traditions of the season. For weeks, our house smells of baking cookies. We choose the perfect Christmas tree – not too tall or too short, not too skinny or fat, with branches wide enough apart for real candles, a tradition from my German mother. On Christmas Eve we sit around the tree singing carols, my children and husband merrily butchering the pronunciation of Stille Nacht. A happy scene.

But the holiday season is also a minefield. My older brother Mark died at age 25 on Thanksgiving in 1980, and every year since, each beloved tradition carries the ache of loss. As the days grow shorter, I start marking anniversaries. There’s Thanksgiving Day itself, and then November 27, his actual death date. His birthday comes on December 7. Then at Christmas I can hear him echoing the baritone line in “Joy to the World” as we sing by the tree. Even over 30 years later, memory can still gut punch me in the middle of a happy moment with longing for what might have been. There is no repairing the gaping hole his death left my heart.

But just as well-meaning folks told the 14-year old me, life goes on, and we can still find joy. I’m struck by how often joy and sadness live side by side in us, and how quickly we flip from one to the other or even feel both at the same time. Yet what we show the world usually leaves out the heartache. My Facebook page gives no hint of my holiday blues.

This year I heard the word “Thanksgrieving” for the first time, and it spoke to me of what I already knew: That for so many, the public celebration masks inner pain. We all carry our own private minefields.