Cope Aesthetic: Surviving Grief During the Holidays

September is here, and fall is right behind it. It’s my favorite time of the year for many reasons: the crisp autumn chill, the cable-knit sweaters and leather boots, the stories around bonfires, the smoke rising from chimneys, a pot of chili simmering on the stove, and, of course, the majestic parade of colors. It always seems to me like the sky lowers in the fall and the walls of the earth close in, and everyone’s heart turns toward home and family. But when we’ve lost someone we love, this wonderful time of year can usher in the type of despair that comes only from grief.

I’ve now spent four holiday seasons without Nicole, and each year getting through it is like walking a tightrope; I take a deep breath, I start walking, and I repeat my mantra, Don’t look down! Those of you who also have the misfortune of walking this tightrope know full well that it only takes one random little thing to make you lose your footing, and often that one little thing can be as simple as waking up in the morning.

For me, surviving the holidays is a little easier because of one thing: rituals. Each year, from Thanksgiving to January 11, I perform five rituals, five markers on my tightrope, that help anchor me during the season.

Because I don’t want to be that person, the one who makes everyone uncomfortable because she can’t stop talking about her dead daughter, the one who punctuates every conversation with, “If my Nicole were here…” Because I don’t want to be that person, I’m careful to edit my conversations before I open my mouth. But during this time of year, I throw caution to the wind and talk about Nicole to my soul’s content. These five rituals help me move forward through the season at a steady pace; they keep me focused, keep me from looking down.

  • My first ritual starts on Thanksgiving, which is when we traditionally put up our tree, and we always did it together (and by together I mean I did the decorating and she did the orchestrating… from the sofa… with a plate of food). Decorating the tree is one thing I’ve been unable to return to without Nicole, and since finding new normals is the name of the game, my new normal, to the amusement of my friends, is to no longer take the tree down… I just wrap it up and put it away. Starting at the bottom, I snugly wrap the whole tree, ornaments and all, in Saran Wrap and haul it down to the garage. The following Thanksgiving, I bring it upstairs, unwrap it, make adjustments here and there, and boom! I’m done. If you think this is something you’d like to try, remember: Leave two open spaces during the wrapping process so you can actually carry the thing to its off-season digs. I learned this the hard way.
  • My second ritual takes place on December 6. It’s the day I last talked to Nicole, the last time I heard her voice. Okay, so I wasn’t all the way truthful about the tree ornaments. There are three that I do take off each year, but I don’t hang them on Thanksgiving when I unwrap the tree. Instead, on the evening of the 6th, I pull out my three special ornaments: One is an “I love You” Valentine heart that Nicole gave me when she was 12. The second is a red sled she made out of Popsicle sticks when she was 9, and the third is a pewter poem ornament I purchased the first Christmas after her death.

The tree is officially up once these ornaments are in place. Even as I hang these ornaments, I imagine her telling me to move one of them a little more to the right, then saying, “Nah, move it back,” and my telling her if she doesn’t like how I’m doing it, she can get off her butt and do it herself. Just like old times!

  • December 22 marks my third ritual. It’s her birthday. Because Nicole was a juvenile diabetic from the age of nine, birthdays were celebrated with doctored-up Angel Food Cake (or as she called it, Angel Crap Cake). So now, every December 22, I buy the richest, most sinfully decadent cake I can find. I also buy a bouquet of flowers (more on that in a bit). With this ritual being so close to Christmas, the cake is often included in my or a friend’s Christmas party, where it is readily identified as Nicole’s cake. Having friends who are in on my rituals means I never have to explain weird happenings, like why there’s a birthday cake at the party when nobody at the party is having a birthday. On the occasion that there’s no party and I end up having to eat the cake by myself, I have at the ready a mental list of reasons why it’s perfectly okay for me to do so.
  • January 8 is the day Nicole went to hospice after 33 days in the hospital ICU. This marks my fourth ritual; it’s the day I put the tree away. I remove my three special ornaments and put them in a box for safe keeping. Then I grab the Saran Wrap and start wrapping. I take the wreaths down and box all the Christmas cards. This is the leg of my tightrope where I get a little shaky, and I start reminding myself to not look down! Up until this time, my rituals have been hanging things up, pulling things out, unwrapping things, but the 8th is the day for taking down and putting away. I play music, and sometimes I dance in the middle of the floor like a crazy woman. Finally, I take whatever petals are left of the bouquet of flowers and shake them off onto a piece of burlap, which I fold up and stick in the fridge. It’s a solemn day, to be sure, but necessary because I need a reason to take the tree down, to remove those three ornaments, and to once again come to terms with the unthinkable: my only child is gone.
  • January 11, is the day Nicole died, and I end my month of rituals by going to the cemetery. It’s usually the only day of the year that I go, and I never know how I’m going to feel until I’ve parked the car and start walking the short distance to where she lies. Even though I know her spirit is not in the ground, I’m aware that her beautiful bones are just beneath my feet. Sometimes it’s all I can do to just make it to the spot. Other times, I sit on my small step stool and read some Billy Collins. And still other times, I sit and stare at the marble and bronze marker lying flush with the earth. I stare at both of our names, and the words Mother & Daughter, and I marvel at how terribly out of order it all seems. Before leaving, I pull out the burlap and sprinkle the petals on the ground, a vibrant splash of color amidst the barren, January landscape. When I turn to leave, I know my walk on the tightrope is over, at least for this season, and I’ve reached the safety of the other side.

This, my friends, is how I survive the holidays. I tell myself that one of these years, I won’t need the rituals, no Saran Wrap, no flowers… I’m pretty sure I’ll still need the cake, though. One of these years, there will be no fear of looking down. And one of these years, I’m going to refashion this tightrope and use it for something more practical, like a jump rope.