As you begin this article, I want to assure you that it ends on a VERY positive note, with tools to help you or others who find themselves in a dark place. The holidays is a very difficult time for many.
Grief wears many faces, and we grieve many things.
This is about my journey out of the tunnel and life on the other side.
These past three years have been indescribably brutal for many people who have experienced loss, and often, multiple losses.
People, family, parents, siblings, children, pets, jobs, homes, and even more devastating losses sometimes – relationships and even entire families. Poof, just gone, sometimes without explanation or reason. Fractured forever, irreparably.
Funerals, when they were held, were often unable to be attended.
There’s no closure.
And now, once again, we face the holidays in this landscape of absence, in an even more politically charged and divisive environment.
Did you just feel your stress level increase?
I know it can be dark and brutal, but I want to share rays of hope with you, and some tools for getting there.
The only way to it is through it.
Please walk with me in this landscape for a bit.
Suicide Hotlines – Just in Case
I know the holidays can be particularly difficult, so just in case you’re overwhelmed, here’s a list of international suicide prevention hotline numbers. Please, please reach out if you need help.
In case you’re wondering, I’m fine. Today, I just talked to someone who isn’t, though.
Change is Tough
For many, including me, the holidays are not and can never be what they once were. Yet, we torture ourselves trying to paste on a smile and go through the motions of the traditions that were once warm and joyful in another time and place. But they aren’t anymore for a wide variety of reasons.
Do yourself a favor.
You don’t HAVE to do this.
And you shouldn’t try to recreate past times through tradition if it’s painful.
Let me share some personal experiences with you. You may have experienced or are experiencing something similar in your life. If you aren’t, good, but rest assured that someone you know and love probably is.
Grief and vulnerability are the secrets no one talks about.
We are all more vulnerable during holidays or periods of traditional cultural celebration, partly because we have expectations based on past experience. Or maybe it’s actually hope for the holidays and the relationships with the people in our lives. Maybe this year will FINALLY be better than the last, and the last, and the last, and everyone will be “home for the holidays” once again.
After all, traditionally, holidays have been a homecoming that looks like a Hallmark greeting card, at least in our minds.
Real life just doesn’t work this way. And if it once did, it doesn’t anymore.
As life moves on, so do people, pets, and family members, for a wide variety of reasons, including death, often making those memories increasingly painful. In some cases, it’s the cumulative number of those events, layer upon layer of grief. Sometimes, it’s how quickly they occur, an agonizing cluster that changes things forever. And sometimes, it’s the fracture of finality, leaving people feeling like they were thrown away like so much trash.
Sometimes, in our efforts to uphold our own expectations and those of others by recreating legendary family traditions and events, we inadvertently fall into a cycle of repeated disappointment, which can lead us to dread these very events in the future.
That’s a downward spiral.
Let Me Give You an Example
My mother cherished Christmas, treasuring it as a time when all the people she loved gathered together, united under one roof in celebration and togetherness.
The house was bustling, and conversations flowed in every room.
Food was abundant, and children zigzagged excitedly through adult legs on the way to their special table.
Sometimes, Santa even visited, although he looked a lot like my brother or the neighbor from the farm down the road. I’m sure that was just a coincidence, though.
In my family, Christmas was both a holiday and our only family reunion.
After Dad passed away, Mom moved to an apartment, and those large family Christmas gatherings were no more, although we regrouped in a different setting. Mom used to be so joyful, singing in the kitchen, but she often cried at Christmas after Dad and others were gone, although she tried to hide her tears from the rest of us.
After Mom passed away, Christmas was just PAINFUL. We tried to focus on our wonderful memories of Mom, but the pain of her departure was very real. Everyone experiences some version of these events, and it’s normal to feel grief, but what we often aren’t prepared for is that someone’s absence changes the dynamics of everything.
For a few years, we still tried to connect with each other and have something resembling a “family holiday,” but not everyone was interested, and people drifted away. The “glue” was gone.
After both of my brothers died of cancer within a few months of each other just six years later, any semblance of family tradition fell completely apart.
I then tried to pivot into the matriarch role and provide family Christmas traditions for my own offspring. I longed for those earlier joyful days, too. They lovingly remembered “Christmas at Mawmaw’s house,” which, in turn, was some iteration of her family Christmas traditions that had been passed down in her maternal line for unknown generations.
I wanted to continue those warm traditions and create loving memories for my family, passing the tradition of togetherness and love to future generations.
That was a wonderful aspiration, but it just wasn’t to be.
Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
I was bound and determined to continue family traditions. That’s just what the next generation does. My mother picked up the mantle when my grandmother passed away in 1960, and nearly a half-century later, it was my turn.
Mom gave each of her children and grandchildren a special Christmas ornament every year, most of them handmade. She loved to crochet and started working on ornaments and Christmas gifts months before the holiday season. After all, she had several to make and enjoyed every minute. Love was woven in every stitch.
Sometimes, the ornaments were representative of the year, like an Olympics year, for example, or maybe a ballerina or football ornament for children who participated in those activities. The theory was that each child would have a “starter set” of personal Christmas ornaments with loving memories when they fledged from the nest and started their own home with their own Christmas tree.
Mom even taped a tiny year someplace on the ornament, generally on the hanger, so they would know which ornament went with which year.
I thought that was wonderful, so I began to do the same thing.
In addition to making ornaments for my children, I made this ornament for Mom the year she won a Best of Show ribbon at the Indiana State Fair. Mom and I so enjoyed attending those exhibits together, often with grandchildren in tow. That was a red-letter year for her, and she proudly displayed the ornament on her tree, right in the front. Then, 17 years later, I inherited that ornament. It’s bittersweet, of course, but reminds me of our wonderful times together and Mother’s beautiful handwork.
I made and gifted special ornaments each year, not only to my children, but eventually to my grandchildren.
While my children began their adult life with their own ornament set, the next generation wasn’t interested and didn’t even remember that they received ornaments year to year. I tried everything, special boxes, allowing them to select ornaments from my tree that they liked, but nothing worked.
Then, in time, it wasn’t just the ornament tradition that bit the dust, but all of the traditions. Put simply, no one cared. I finally got the message.
That left me with boxes full of Christmas tree ornaments, and two trees. I tried putting the tree up regardless, because – you know – Mom and memories, and she would have liked that. And maybe, just maybe, things would be different this year.
But I sat alone, sadder every year, because there was no family gathering Christmas tradition anymore, despite my continuing efforts. There were no songs, no Christmas smells in the house, and what at one time had been a wonderful, warm tradition became just the opposite. Those ornaments seemed to mock me and served to remind me of pointed absence, not presence.
I dreaded the holidays more each year.
The family had shrunk dramatically and been cleaved into two. One of my adult children continued to come with their spouse and remained engaged, but the silence of the absence of the balance of the family members was deafening.
It’s not like we could pretend that empty chairs weren’t empty.
Then came Covid and unraveled the rest.
Enough is Enough
In some families, Covid, sometimes combined with ugly politics, broke traditions and relationships that haven’t resumed or recovered.
The forced isolation of Covid and traditions shattered by estrangement have continued for many. That situation now exists by choice, not by Covid.
Life is simply too short to continue enduring the repeated pain of rejection, especially for no discernible reason.
Hope is not a strategy, and repeated disappointment evolves into a cycle of ever-deepening grief.
At some point, enough is enough. There needs to be an end to the spiral of recurring pain.
Wishing, hoping, inviting, and even begging simply can’t make people care or succeed in recreating past traditions. People don’t show up if they don’t want to. Recurrent flimsy excuses that really say “I don’t care,” take the place of people. I think guilt then discourages showing up and “facing people” in the future, too, so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of “can’t bother, don’t care.”
Even if the wished-for people begrudgingly attend, somewhat under duress, or maybe from a sense of obligation, it’s not the same because it’s obvious that they really don’t want to be there. That’s almost worse than absence.
When things no longer work, it’s time to accept that fact, release them, and move on. It’s much like going through the motions in a bad marriage – not good for anyone and never gets better.
For me, that moment arrived when I almost died. I found myself perilously close to death, and in those moments, as life hung perilously in the balance, something inexplicable changed.
Working from home during Covid provided the opportunity to move – something we had considered for years. We knew it was time to move, and move on.
The next challenge was packing, which means you have to sort through everything and decide what to do with things. Take, leave, give away, sell, or trash. As you come across all those things you boxed up years ago, you relive all of those shallowly buried memories. Ghouls come leaping from the grave.
After consulting with my daughter, I gave away all the Christmas ornaments and both trees to loving homes. I kept a few ornaments – some that Jim and I had purchased on special occasions, those yearly ornaments from Mom, some made by my children, and the ones from my grandmother as well. My daughter will inherit those someday.
The rest just needed to go.
I no longer feel obligated to “try” to recreate traditions that died.
I no longer feel obligated to put up a Christmas tree that simply makes me cry every time I see ornaments that remind me of people, lives, traditions, and relationships that have passed away, either literally or figuratively.
I don’t do any of that anymore.
Life’s too short, and self-care is critically important.
Triggers are like unexpectedly poking an old wound. Maybe cracking your shin or crazy bone against something sharp. OUCH!
It seems that we are more susceptible to triggers during the holidays. That’s when holiday decorations, ads, and songs are more in evidence, reminding us of times past whether we want to be reminded or not.
Sometimes, though, triggers are found when and where we least expect them – like in the cedar chest.
This past week, I was ill and wanted to add an extra quilt to the bed, so I grabbed a quilt that one of my friends lovingly made for my small family wedding 20 years ago.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time, asking attendees to sign squares. Each of those yellow centers holds a signature and, often, a message too.
It was late at night, and I was already “sick and tired,” literally. For some reason, I decided to read those squares. It seemed like such a positive thing to do, because it was such a joyful day, and they had been lovingly penned.
What was I thinking? I thought they would be comforting. I should have known better.
As I began, the one signed by my daughter, who stood up with me as my maid of honor, made me smile. There were lovely messages from long-time friends and my quilt sisters.
I saw Mom’s shaky signature, a couple of years before she left us, and that made me both smile and cry. That response didn’t surprise me, but some of the rest did.
Most of the people have either passed away or migrated away. I don’t necessarily mean that in a universally negative sense because, in some cases, it was due to aging and necessary life changes. Even for the best of reasons, it represented a loss of sorts, like Christmas tree lights that dim and wink out one by one.
Sometimes, the reason was darker. Some people died, and in other cases, relationships ended – some horribly and bitterly, inflicting great pain.
But the square that absolutely gutted me was the tiny traced handprint of a child, no longer here. Ripped my heart right out of my chest, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it. Daggers to my soul.
That was it. I folded that quilt up and put it away. I may never unfold it again.
It vividly resurrects all the memories of those now-gone people and traditions in both their glory and deepest tragedy.
We all reach a low at some point, often for unexpected reasons. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, but that does not need to be the end of the story. It’s just the shutting of that door and the opening of another.
Let’s open a door.
I am determined that I will not allow change, even unwelcome or forced change, to defeat me and define my life.
I did not die on that life-changing day, nor with those traditions, relationships, or those people. Those who love or loved me would not want me to, and the rest don’t matter.
Let me say that again, THE REST DON’T MATTER.
I’m still here, relatively healthy, and living the next chapter of life in beautiful surroundings.
Yes, Thanksgiving is on the calendar, and so is Christmas. You can’t miss those dates or events. There will be Thanksgiving dinner, but just for me, Jim, and maybe a friend or two – and that’s now fine.
Yes, just fine.
My daughter and I have mutually agreed to release old habits and make glorious new ones that better suit our lives now. Or, maybe just the tradition of enjoying the moment whenever it occurs. Let’s face it: travel is brutal in the middle of the winter, so we select easier, less-crowded times.
There will be no traditional Christmas tree, for either me or her. And guess what, that’s not only absolutely fine, it’s cathartic and a relief. This is my Charlie Brown Christmas tree now, and I love it. It comes with no hassle and no tears.
Our small remaining family has decided that gifts will no longer be exchanged during the holiday season. We will simply do things for each other during the year, as the opportunity arises and we see something a family member would enjoy.
For example, my daughter and I took a glorious trip together this summer.
Art, gardens, parks, dogs, eagles, moose, coffee, luscious food in little-known quaint restaurants and family – how does it get better???
Sometimes, surprise boxes arrive. That’s such fun. I’m now the proud human adopter of a rescued manatee, Ariel.
Here’s the beautiful part. We are both very much looking forward to our next adventure together – not dreading the holidays.
We will embark on a wonderful journey soon, together, on a white sand beach in a place neither of us ever imagined. I can hardly wait.
No more dreading the holidays and trying to breathe life into dead traditions. She’s probably relieved, too.
It wasn’t easy or immediate, but…
We. Are. Free.
We are no longer adrift or cast away on a sea of grief.
Today, I can breathe instead of grieve. No more tightness of dread in my chest, increasing each day as the holidays approach, knowing assuredly that things will go wrong, just not how this year. No more fighting back hot, unwelcome tears from mid-November to New Year’s when the holidays are finally over.
Now that I’ve found peace in embracing change, it no longer feels like chronic loss, but a stream of new opportunities to be enjoyed. The joy is being spread in different, less traditional ways.
The past no longer binds me. It wasn’t working any more.
As for Christmas Day, I’m starting a new tradition for myself. I’m going to walk on the beach and feel the salty breeze in my hair. Either alone or with Jim.
No one else will be there. I will commune with Mom and Dad, my brother Dave, my sister Edna, my cousin Cheryl, and the rest of those I’ve loved and lost.
They will be with me there, gliding with the gulls on the ocean breeze.
With immense gratitude, I’ll remember my ancestors who survived incredibly difficult journeys. Without them, I wouldn’t have this priceless opportunity to live and make a difference in other people’s lives.
I will be thankful for those opportunities and send positive energy into the universe for the earth and her people.
I’ll lift a prayer for peace and unity, which we so desperately need right now.
But I won’t, I will NOT grieve the past. I’ve had that funeral, and it’s at rest now.
I, too, will be at peace.
Put whatever brings you pain to rest and release it so that you can make space to breathe in the new.
You’re not obligated to uphold old traditions. Don’t stay trapped in what no longer works.
This is a labyrinth, not a maze.
There’s a way out, an exit, an off-ramp.
Your ancestors will help you. They walk with you in unseen ways, offering guidance and wisdom.
Move on to something new, more suited to you.
Give yourself permission.
Release yourself from the pain of the past.
Create beautiful, new, imaginative traditions, or none at all.
Either is fine.
When life gives you scraps, make quilts.
Find or make something new and joyful.
Allow yourself flights of fancy and to dream.
The sky is not the limit.
There is no limit.
Help With Inspirational Positivity
What we view interacts with our brain. As a quilter, I’m very aware of how color and pattern make us feel. The images I used in the section above were created with that in mind. How did they make you feel?
If you’re having trouble feeling positive, and who doesn’t from time to time, motivational or inspirational images will help. AI is your friend, so let’s give it a try.
If you subscribe to ChatGPT 4, enter a request into DALL-E, the image generator. If you don’t subscribe to ChatGPT, my favorite, use a free image generator. You can ask ChatGPT’s free version for free AI image generators to get started, or you can try DALL-E for free through Bing’s Image Creator, here. Personally, I think the $20 a month for ChatGPT 4, which includes Dall-E, is well worth the investment, even if you just use it for one month for a daily dose of positivity during a difficult time.
Ask ChatGPT 4’s DALL-E or your AI generator of choice to create an inspirational image. You may or may not provide more direct or additional instructions. You can even just google.
I asked DALL-E to “create a picture by interpreting the phrase, ‘when life gives you scraps, make beautiful quilts’.”
Next, I included a photo of myself as a young person and asked ChatGPT to “put the person in a positive and inspirational setting with a labyrinth.”
ChatGPT doesn’t use people’s photos, but it generates images with likenesses. This is what I received. I can continue refining this image by asking ChatGPT to change it or by submitting a new request. (Please note that ChatGPT’s image generator is sometimes overburdened, and you have to wait a bit and try later.)
Be sure to include words in the instructions like “uplifting, “positive,” “ethereal”, “beautiful,” or “colorful.”
Next, I asked Dall-E to add a quilt theme to the same labyrinth image, above.
ChatGPT’s DALL-E doesn’t always follow directions exactly, but I must admit, I really love this, and now I want to make it as a quilt.
If you’re in a difficult space and can do nothing else right now, utilize ChatGPT, other AI image generators, Pixabay or even Google to bombard yourself with positive, hopeful images of your new or imagined life.
Inspiration comes from many places, and beautiful images lift our spirits.
You WILL feel better.
Thanksgiving week begins now, so gird your loins if you need to, and maybe consider something novel. If you’re concerned about Thanksgiving dinner going off the rails, CNN’s newsletter today, here, provided a list of “20 Questions to Spark Gratitude.” It’s a thoughtful piece and worth taking a look, even if you don’t need it for Thanksgiving. I exchanged answers with Jim, which was fun, and we both learned something.
I asked ChatGPT for nontraditional Thanksgiving celebration ideas, and it suggested a barbeque or picnic celebration on a beach, a craft day, or a gratitude scavenger hunt.
You can ask the free version of ChatGPT for ideas, too.
I wish you the happiest of holidays over the next few weeks, no matter how you do, or don’t, decide to celebrate.
Please do something that brings YOU joy.
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