I was recently at a bereaved parents workshop where some newly bereaved parents were wondering how the more “seasoned” bereaved parents chose to remember their child on the first holidays after they had died.  I began thinking about that first holiday season without Joseph in 2009, which also happened to be his infant brother’s first holiday season ever.  The dichotomy of having an eight-month old while having lost our 2 ½ year old felt far more bitter than sweet and, though much of it is a blur, any memory relating to my grief and yearning for my deceased son remains crystal clear. 

At that 2009 holiday season Joseph would have been coming up on three years old.  It probably would have been the first time Joseph could feel the “magic” of the holiday hype.  That year, he would have probably been brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap, his eyes probably would have glittered with joy at the sight of gifts under the tree and he probably would have been more inclined to taste the variety of dishes at our Thanksgiving feast – or at least the dessert.  But, instead, he was diagnosed and died of of a brain tumor that summer, all within four months time, and there was no magic left in our lives at all let alone at holiday time.

As the 2009 holiday season approached I could barely breath.  People thoughtlessly asked me what I was doing for Halloween and, later, Thanksgiving and, finally, in December it became,  “So, are you all ready for Christmas?”  Ready?  Really?  No.  My child wasn’t here.  I was far from “ready” for Christmas.  In fact, I would never, ever be “ready” for celebrating any holiday again but I refrained from answering people that way.  All of those comments, though they weren’t meant to hurt me, felt nothing but cruel.  And then came the onslaught of Christmas cards plastered with people’s smiling, healthy children.  My heart felt like it was going to tumble of out of my chest every single day.

I spent much of that holiday season trying to figure out how to keep Joseph involved in it all even though he felt so far away.  I wanted to come up with the “perfect plan” to keep him present.  I told myself that I needed to find the perfect tradition: one that our family could repeat ever year to commemorate my son’s life.  I thought endlessly about what to do and how to do it.  I replayed the possible scenarios over and over in my mind.  But whenever I imagined each plan, I felt petrified to act upon it for fear of what it may mean or represent if that tradition didn’t work or failed to continue each year or our family became reluctant participants as the years went on.  Would that mean Joseph was forgotten?  Or that everyone was “better?”  Or, worse yet, would it mean it had become “ok” that Joseph had died?  My wondering paralyzed me from forming any concrete plan.

But, eventually, I came up with what I felt was the “perfect” idea. At Thanksgiving that year, I would ask everyone in our (very large) family to pen a memory of Joseph and place it in a memory box.  I figured that was something we could do every holiday of every year going forward and I would eventually place the writings in a scrapbook for my living son to learn about his brother one day. At last, I thought I’d finally found the perfect way to keep Joseph alive this year and every year at the family gatherings where his absence was especially glaring to me.

I threw myself into preparing my perfect plan.  I bought all new markers for people to use; the most expensive ones I could find. I bought the scrapbook to place the writings in and agonized over whether the blue or the neutral color would be just right.  I made the box for people to place their written memories in and framed an adorable photo of Joseph to place next to the box at Thanksgiving.  Finally, I calligraphied instructions for everyone so they would understand how to perform this new tradition and feel as excited about it as I was. 

But when Thanksgiving arrived it was far from perfect.  My husband and I arrived late at my sister-in-law’s home because I was not able to endure the entire evening.  For the 45 minutes we were there I used every muscle inside my body to keep from total and complete emotional collapse.  Anything anyone said to me bounced off of me like rubber. I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t see anything, I could barely function; however, I was able to collect myself just enough to set up my “perfect plan” on a small table near the desserts only to find that most people didn’t really want to think about Joseph and the horrific fact that he had died.  It wasn’t that they didn’t miss him or didn’t care that he wasn’t there.  They did...but they didn’t want to enter into that abyss of sadness that was impossible for me to pull myself out of.  They had more of a choice than I did because they had more contriol over their grief.  And although they did as I asked them to and wrote down some memories, I could sense that it wasn’t an act they enjoyed or wanted to do at that time in that place.  I felt numb to everything that night but not too numb to realize that my “perfect plan” to start a new tradition was anything but perfect.  In fact, it was a total flop.

And that realization was just a microcosm of the bigger realization I had that Thanksgiving which was that holidays without Joseph would never be perfect and there was nothing I could do to change that.  No amount of planning, tradition or love that I had would make my child a part of any holiday the way I wanted him to be.  In desperation, I had convinced myself that I could mold his death into something positive for the holidays and, in hindsight, I should have known better.  This acknowledgmenet was an added layer of grief I experienced that holiday season.

Another realization I had in those early years was that after you struggle through those first holidays without your child you have to endure the second ones…and the third and, for me this year, the fifth.  But in the darkness of those early years I also came to learn that the trial and error of figuring out how to incorporate my deceased child into our holiday celebrations was not vastly different than the trial and error I experienced in parenting him when he was alive.  I now realize that my failure to implement the “perfect tradition” in 2009 doesn’t mean that anyone had forgotten him or didnt miss him.  Instead, it meant that, even in death, Joseph continues to grow in our hearts and in our lives and, like traditional parenting, that growth requires that I, his mother, make the necessary adjustments in order to sustain and encourage that growing relationship. Looking back on that first year in 2009, it was unrealistic and, frankly, inconsistent with the role I want Joseph to play in our family’s lives for me to think a single tradition, repeateded and unchanged every year, would reflect the vibrance and energy of my son’s life and his presence in our lives today.

I now take some comfort in the fact that the way we incorporate Joseph into our lives changes each year.   How we choose to remember him is always evolving which, to me, represents life rather than the stagnancy and stillness of death. I no longer fear sampling new ways to keep Joseph present at the holidays because I view it as an opportunity to continue to parent him even in his absence.  Of course it is not the way I wish it was but, considering my reality, I have found a glimmer of peace in embracing the opportunity to continue to mother my little Joseph however untraditional that role may be.  

Happy Holidays, Joseph, to wherever you may be.  Mommy misses you.