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Christmas After the Loss of a Child

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Seven years, five months and 15 days. That is how old she would be today. I usually don’t know that off the top of my head, unless it’s on the 21st (her birthday was June 21, 2009). However, it is something I can come up with rather quickly. Any parent who lost their child can. It’s a thing.

I have written about this before, but it is worth revisiting. When one carries a child, there is this intimate connection, literally. This being completely depends on you to make its way onto the planet. You feel that first movement, and it’s surprising the first time it happens. You feel when it gets the hiccups, which always cracked me up, unless I was trying to go to sleep, which was always the case with Maribella.

You wonder, “What will this being who I have grown inside of me be like?” When that child is in your arms for the first time, you look at her with wonder, and say, “How the fuck did that happen? I mean, I made this. Now she is here, in my arms, mine forever, this bond between mother and child.” That bond can never be broken, you see.

I had the privilege to walk on this planet for four years, 10 months and 17 days with Bells. The day she died, I played kids Scrabble with her, and I believe she won. (There are some things that are hazy from that day but most are crystal clear.) I would like to think she won. Because, of course she was brilliant.

It was a game that we played often, to teach letters, sounds and words. I left for work that day never expecting what I came home to, not in a million years. There is the old cliche that you almost always expect your child to outlive you. It is supposed to be a given, and logically, I knew that was not the case. The only guarantee we have is death, and that date is an unknown for most of us. You think more in those terms though with people with terminal diseases, the elderly, people who have risky jobs — not your young child. Not your 4-year-old. This magical creature that goes from melting your heart in one moment to infuriating you beyond belief the next.

You want to be the best parent you can be. You work to balance not spoiling them with wanting to give them everything. You work on figuring out what their personality is so you can guide them, teaching them right and wrong. You teach them what responsibility is, to one’s self, their family, community and society. You teach them how important kindness and compassion to others is. You watch them get excited about life. The list goes on and on.

The holidays are part of that excitement. Today, being the season, we will explore Christmas. I was raised “sorta” Catholic, meaning I went through all the motions of catechism, confession, then I think confirmation.  My dad’s side of the family was Catholic. In retrospect, I would call my mom spiritual/pagan. I did not resonate with the training, and now, I am as far as one can be from that aspect of life.

Christmas for me is a time of celebration of family, a time of reflection and thanks. My family is a little on the loopy side of things. My dad growing up put thousands (think the Griswalds) of lights on the house. My mom loved decorating the inside. Every year, we each got her ornaments for her tree, and she could tell you a story for each one.

I still do this. I have a fake tree that’s sole purpose is to hold the decades of memories. Christmas Eve was a huge celebration, an average of 40 people at the table. There was always an extra plate set for the orphans we would invite. Everyone (even people who we would not know about until that day) had a present to open after dinner, the kids delighting in the present exchange from people they would not see the next day. The next morning, “Santa” would have come, and we opened even more presents.

As a child, I, of course, loved it. I mean, who wouldn’t. When I became a parent, I tried to teach my children moderation and that we don’t “need” a ton of toys. (Hey, let’s donate some kind of philosophy.) I was uncomfortable with it and still am. There is almost a hedonistic aspect to it all. Yet, we traveled back, year after year, because it was all I ever knew. Also, I wanted to be with my family because that was what it was about.

When you become a parent, the holidays take on this magical quality that exists on a different level than previously. You watch them look at the lights, the trees and the whole experience with wonder. I never endorsed or encouraged the whole Santa thing; however, I did not ruin it either.

Watching Raffi and Bella made it all the more enchanting. We wanted to share with them the importance of the holiday season celebrating with family and friends. We adopted a family every year, and I took the kids shopping for them. I did not love the “excess” and “materialistic” aspects, but all the rest, I loved.

The last Christmas before they died, we did not go to New York. There are several reasons for this, the main being Jesse was injured in a car accident the February before and could not travel across the country without extreme pain. We ended up going to spend the holiday with our family in Bend. What an entirely different experience. I have to admit. I could not believe how relaxing and chill it was.

I loved that experience just as much as what I grew up with. It was just as lovely and experiential. Raffi had just wrangled out of me that Santa was not real, but she was excited to be a part of keeping the magic alive for her sister. The embellishments were so heartwarming. I remember her showing Bells a present from that morning, and saying “Bells, look, another present from Santa!!”

Then, it changed. It usually comes to this sentence. Doesn’t it, dear readers?

Things are not the same for me anymore. Most things are tinged with a bittersweet longing. There is the obvious, half my family is gone. The time when Christmas would be the most magical for my child, she is not here to experience it. What would she be like? What would be on her Christmas list?

I imagine her sitting at the table with Raffi making their Christmas presents for people, her little brow furrowed with concentration. Gleeful when glitter got everywhere, while I groaned at the cleanup. The dreading of getting on a plane to go to New York during the holiday season to travel across the country with young children. (No parent loves that!) Yet, once there, watching the family get to see these little creatures, who would not be so little anymore. When we put up our Christmas tree, watching the both of them with their personal ornaments decide where to put them on the tree. I could go on, but I am getting teary thinking of this.

What is now? The past two Christmases I have been in New York. I have used alcohol and the maximum medication to “get through” Christmas Eve and day. No, please don’t do that. I know my body. I know the limits of what I can and can’t do with it well. There are only a handful of times in the  past two and a half years that I have done that.

I don’t remember much from those days. I do remember the never-ending guilt I have in regards to Raffi. It is still there. I feel awful that I can’t just be there to celebrate with her. She is, after all, still here. Yet, I am wrapped in memories and grief, and I am desperate to not feel the depth of pain and despair that is rolling through my body.

I wonder at times, what will she remember? One of the things that happens on Christmas Eve, after dinner, is we clear everything, the kids go downstairs, they read about the meaning of Christmas, while the adults transform the upstairs into a present-filled wonderland. They then are allowed to come up and are bouncing off the walls with excitement. A family friend comes in dressed as Santa. The kids crowd around, hugging him with delight.

I lost my shit last year when this happened. Like for reals. When I saw those kids around Santa, I ran upstairs and had one of my snot-flying, sobbing on the floor moments that I wonder if I will ever get out of.

I realize now (it has taken a lot of time and perspective to do that), New York is hard. It is where I have nothing but memories of my family, together. I watched my children grow and be mesmerized by the traditions that were established. I sat looking longingly at the little Christmas figurines that Bells had played with previously. It is a huge trigger for me to be there.

Will it always be? I don’t know. I am often asked that question. “Will it always be like this?” I have no clue. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) does not go away. You just learn to live with it.

This year we will be going to Bend. My mother-in-law said in passing last year, “I wish you guys could come here sometime for Christmas. It was so great the year you did.” I thought to myself, why can’t I? So we are alternating now. I am really looking forward to it. They are in a house that Jesse and Bella were never in. So I have no memories of them there. I think that is one of the reasons it is one of my peaceful and safe places.

I think about going to New York for the holidays, and I fill with dread. It’s the memories. I know that now. It is no different when I pass the daycare that Bella went to (or any number of the things we did as a family). It is a visceral response. It can range from a rapid heart beat to a full blown panic attack.

There are many times where I cannot control whether this happens or not. I mean, I live about a mile from where we lived. We are still entrenched in the community, which I would not change in a heartbeat, but it can be triggering.

Then, there are the times when I can control whether I am exposed to things that I know will trigger me. I try to avoid those for all the obvious reasons. Yet, I can’t avoid Christmas. I can’t avoid the influx of memories and wonder about the “what if’s.”

As always, I keep going through the motions. I keep showing up the best way I can for my child. We put up the tree together this year, and I only lost my shit once, which is a record. So I take that as progress.

I know now that with the loss of Bella, some aspects will never get easier. Time will allow the space, supposedly. Yet, the bond, that never goes away. You do go on. You will be broken forever after the loss of your child. Yet, you will re-weave your heart, that loss being the strings that hold it together, always a part of you, a bittersweet reminder of the gift that was.

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Originally published: December 22, 2016
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