Have you ever taken a random grief nap? As in, “I am suddenly overwhelmed by piercing sadness and I think I’ll just shut my eyes for the next 15 minutes because I can’t even look at the world right now”—that kind of grief nap?
I did that today. It helped a little bit. As did the festive chocolate truffle I snuck from one of the many holiday gift bags scattered around our house. When you experience the emotional equivalent of a “404 error page not found,” you do what you have to do to reboot.
Some days, I find myself moving through what I call free-floating grief. It’s not attached to any specific event, though I can pinpoint a source or two if I think about it. I try not to think about it. Instead, I distract myself by focusing on tasks: Drive the children to activities, go shopping, answer these emails, finish this project, do the dishes. If I stop moving, the grief settles and I have to, you know, feel it.
One moment, I’m bopping along, dancing through my responsible adult routine. And then I find myself shish-kebabbed by total sorrow that my dad, who died ten years ago, is not here to see this insanely gorgeous California winter day and argue with me that yes, it’s pretty, but it’ll never be as beautiful as Hawaii, where I grew up, because DUH, TROPICAL PARADISE. And just like that, a stupid, make-believe, funny argument I’ll never get to have with my dad has me swallowing hard and doing that blinky thing ladies do when we have mascara on and don’t want to start crying because we’ll turn into a raccoon.
I forget that during the holidays, free-floating grief crystallizes in the atmosphere, and when it’s heavy enough, it falls to earth, blanketing everything in sight. Even my sunlit home.
When this happens, I’m not just grieving loved ones lost. I’m grieving Christmases past and Christmases that never were and never will be. What would the holidays be like for us if my father hadn’t smoked for 30 years and hadn’t had the strokes or the heart attacks or the arterial blockage? If a part of my mother hadn’t curled up next to him on the floor that awful morning and never gotten up? If the chemo that killed her colon cancer hadn’t ravaged her body and left her frail and dependent?
Would my husband and I pack up our California kids and fly to Hawaii for a big, noisy celebration with extended family and trips to the beach and a pig roasted in a backyard pit instead of the two turkey breasts I make for us every year because none of us like dark meat? Would my parents have stayed young and playful the way they were together and we’d meet them in Vegas for a holiday getaway?
Our Christmases are small and quiet—the four of us and my mother, just the way we like. It usually feels like enough, but when my heart is low, small isn’t cozy. My head is cluttered with fear and worry. What will it be like next year when my son has gone off to college? Will he be happy to return to our little Christmas or will he wish for more?
Are we creating meaningful experiences, or are we just tumbling from one To Do to the next? Am I missing what is happening now? Am I going to miss it later? Is this good? Is right now enough? It’s clear I’ve never totally gotten the hang of this adulthood business. Surely, if I had, there would be less swearing and fewer dishes piled in the sink.
Sometimes the thoughts are so overpowering, there’s nothing to do but breathe through the ache in my chest. And when my throat loosens, I sneak a chocolate. I can’t outrun my holiday melancholia, so I try to live in it. It’s just another seasonal nuisance like Christmas muzak and mall Santas.
I don’t know what the solution is, except for short naps, long walks, the occasional truffle and more water than I think I need, because no one wants to be sad and dehydrated. Bad television shows and good books help. So do friends who are as flawed as you are, especially if you can text them about how you almost had a mental breakdown at the post office and they respond with, “OMG, ME, TOO!” and a bunch of poop emojis to show that they understand the complete shittiness of mailing last minute gifts.
This is all I know: for some of us, the holidays are hard, but they’re full of love and beauty, too. We’re not alone, and we should all make sure to drink enough water.