I thought that grief was supposed to lessen over time. I could swear I missed my mom more this past holiday season than previous Christmases. Despite having an overall holly jolly time, I hit a rough patch the last week or so before Christmas. I felt like I crammed a lot of riotous, rollicking activities into the time between mid-November and mid-December. Once I found myself past the flurry of events, I realized I had cleared a wide, fresh pathway to feeling sad. One day, I got it into my head to go to a mall and the Christmas Tree decoration store my mother and I frequented several times. I would normally never consider going shopping so close to Christmas, but I had a few errands that I thought I could knock out quickly. Of course, I didn’t knock them out quickly. It was a bit of a hard slog made even harder because of my mother’s absence.
I have many happy memories of my mother associated with Christmas. Most people would say that they love Christmas. Why else do songsters keep belting out “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?” To my mother, though, Christmas was an art form. It wasn’t like she was one of those crazy Christmas light folks on television, but there was something intensely special about the way she threw herself into the season. There are so many holiday moments that she engraved permanently into my brain with love. It makes me so happy that I have these memories. Without a doubt, those memories enrich my experience of Christmas, even since her death. There is also a sadness tied up in those memories that breaks through every year at the holidays.
Every year since I can remember, my mother used to take me Christmas shopping on a special day. She did the same for my brother. Ostensibly, the trip was for each of us to buy a Christmas present for the other sibling. In truth, there was another agenda that I did not perceive until well into my teen years. My mom would take us on these outings to buy a present for our sibling… and so she could see what delighted the kid on the shopping expedition with her. She explained to someone once that she would watch what caught my eye and what I “oohed and awed over” as I wandered the stores looking for a present for my brother. I was never very good at telling anyone what I wanted, so she would watch my reaction to items in the store for ideas about what might enchant me on Christmas morning. She always did great.
My shopping day with my mother continued until the December before her stroke. As she aged and became frailer, we had to adapt what we did and for how long, but we always had a wonderful time. We’d look at Christmas decorations, listen to Christmas music, buy stuff we didn’t need, and revel in being together. This shared annual experience was so much a part of who we were together, I even tried to arrange a special transport to take her to the tiny mall in our town that last December of her life. Unfortunately, before I could get the authorization and organize everything, she started to let go of her hold on her “regular” world and began to head down her journey towards the next life.
My shopping trip right before Christmas this past holiday screamed “mom” at me. It just felt so much like something she should have shared with me, as she had so many other pre-Christmas shopping trips. Suddenly, I missed her with a physical fierce coldness that seemed to simultaneously freeze my respiratory system and melt my digestive system. My knees wobbled alarmingly. For a few moments, my brain seemed to spin around inside my skull and I thought I might faint. I was standing in a depressingly long line at JC Penney’s. I grabbed a shelf on one side of the line and waited for the feeling to pass. The intensity of the pain did pass, but left some emotional havoc in its wake.
Someone once told me that one key to managing depression is to HALT. Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I realized that I was all four of these “halts.” I couldn’t do much about being hungry or tired while standing in line, unless I called out for pizza and a sleeping bag. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being lonely for my momma. I could, however, choose to stop feeling angry and frustrated with the massive line at Penney’s. I used the rest of my time standing in line observing the shoppers around me and the clerks at the cash registers. For the most part, the shoppers were pretty disgruntled and the sales clerks were serene and polite. I decided I would try to flip the script. When it was my turn to pay, I made a special effort to be pleasant and grateful.
I transacted my business at Penney’s and moved on to Macy’s. Some weeks ago, I bought a wonderfully warm, fluffy robe at Macy’s. The weather finally cooled off enough by the middle of December for me to wear it to water aerobics class. That is when I discovered that the Macy’s sales associate had neglected to remove the security tag. Macy’s is about 40 miles from my house, so I originally decided to just live with a grey plastic device flopping at the side of my robe. When people started looking at me funny at the pool, clearly wondering if I had embarked on a life of crime, I thought better of that tactic. That was my motivation for going to the mall less than a week before Christmas. I brought the robe to get the Macy’s people to untag me.
When I got to Macy’s, it seemed that people were even nastier than they were at Penney’s. I purposely let several people go ahead of me because they were unhinged and I thought it would be helpful for the sales clerk if she didn’t have to balance her priorities between Miss Christmas Crazy Person 2019 and me, who had been waiting in line ahead of her (to say nothing of the fact that I would not have had to drive 40 miles and stand in line at all if the first sales clerk had removed the tag in the first place.) I smiled at the clerks supportively and even suggested that they take care of another timebomb of a shopper before they waited on me. I found it strangely serene and comforting to engage in these small acts of kindness. I said a little prayer to thank God for His blessing in helping me find this little coping mechanism.
I was pretty proud of myself until I left the mall and realized I was still very hungry and… lonely. I drove to a nearby McDonald’s. McDonald’s was also a holiday tradition in my home. For some unknown and clearly irrational reason, I didn’t like McDonald’s hamburgers as a child. I did, however, love the French fries. On Christmas Eve, my mother would fry hamburgers at home and my father would go to McDonald’s and buy French fries. When I got older (and over my antipathy to McDonald’s hamburgers), it was a special treat during Christmas vacation for my brother and me to ride our bikes to McDonald’s alone and have lunch. So, as weird as it sounds, McDonald’s has a sentimental attraction for me.
At McDonald’s, I found they converted to a customer-driven electronic ordering system. I stared at the huge monitor and began pushing buttons, trying to follow the directions. Something about the electronic ordering system baffled me. I kept getting to a place in the process that thwarted me. I felt more and more defeated as I kept trying. I felt confused and despondent. After trying several times, I surrendered. I still had enough of my wits about me to know that I should not get back in the car and drive without something to eat. I went up and tried to explain my dilemma to the nice young lady at the counter. For some reason, I was also having trouble finding words to explain what was wrong. I kept apologizing. She never skipped a beat or appeared impatient. She was sincerely kind. Ultimately, we completed the ordering process. I took my number and went off to find a table, embarrassed at the fuss I was making. Once I sat down, I even started to cry softly and discreetly. Another employee, who was cleaning up around the lobby, came over to ask if I was okay and if she could do anything for me.
After I ate my lunch and nourished my psyche with some perspective, I thought about how thankful I was for the kindness of the McDonald’s employees. A fast food restaurant is about the last place one would expect workers to rise above the madness and inject a little humanity into the day. Fast food restaurants are loud, crowded, and thrive on doing things quickly and efficiently. These McDonald’s employees were not only efficient using their hands and heads, they went a step further and used their hearts.
I wanted to do something to thank them. They deserved it. Plus, I had been reminded by my experiences at the department stores that it makes me feel better to do something nice for someone else. I went over to the lobby employee, thanked her, and gave her a hug. I also thanked the lady at the counter. They were both over the moon. I also told the manager how grateful I was to both the employees. I told her that being nice is a superpower. People don’t always realize how much difference it can make to just be nice.
When my mother was shrinking through her last year of life, I often found myself being the kind of person I didn’t want to be. I was impatient, snappish, and cranky all too frequently. I felt like I was losing the best parts of me- the gentleness, the peace, the playfulness, the affection. I was ashamed. I blamed myself… and I also blamed the grief. I believed the mourning was destroying the me I had always been.
In the last year or so, I rejoice because I feel some of those shinier sides of me returning. I notice myself behaving as I would have behaved years ago. It makes me so happy. I also notice that, like on my pre-Christmas shopping day, I am finding more tiny ways to nurture happiness in the world.
For me… and maybe for everybody… mourning is not a linear process. There is no forward or backward. There is ebb and flow. There are zigs and zags. There are swirls and spirals. Mourning gains and loses momentum, depending on external circumstances and internal conditions… like hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. The most important thing, though, is that mourning does not have to destroy. Mourning can also create.
I consider the shot of grief that often accompanies my memories of my mother to be the “price of admission” to being able to re-experience the happy times with her. I think it is worth it to have the odd meltdown now and then in order to access the sweet memories. What do you think? Is it worth being sad sometimes over the death of a loved one to also remember the joyful times and connections? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a sweetly memorable day!