Our Holiday Journey
By Connie Kennemer
Todd took his life a week before Thanksgiving 2005. Loss of any kind is traumatic, but a suicide death is surreal and stigmatizing. Thanksgiving was a blur for us that year. Time has softened the memories of that first holiday without our son. Close to a decade later I remember the compassion and care of this new neighborhood of loss: A deliciously prepared Thanksgiving dinner from a well-known eatery, compliments of friends on the East Coast; calls from around the world; friends manning our phone and contacting family and friends. They spoke for us in our stunned silence. Trusted companions appeared daily to feed us, listen to us and remind us to breathe. They carried our pain and made it their own—the beauty of community.
Then came Christmas, that “Queen of Holidays”. It was wasted on us. December 25 came and went that first year, void of celebration. Those in our inner circle were caring, sensitive and sacrificial. It was almost as if our pain was more important than their pleasure. There is much about that season Rex and I just blocked out because we were disoriented and paralyzed. The less we thought and processed, the safer our world felt.
In reflecting back to the first winter holidays, I see how shock protected us. Had we felt the full weight of the trauma, it would have taken us out. Shock acted as a numbing agent, temporary but necessary. When all you can swallow is a teaspoonful of pain, it’s foolish to use a soup ladle. I treasured those first days of “comfortable denial” because they served as a buffer against the awful truth.
Navigating holidays became an important part of our grief work that first year. We learned that every holiday left us in harm’s way, even those that we didn’t usually observe. Todd’s absence made even Columbus Day painful. We discovered that having a plan for special days was essential. The more we “populated holidays with people”, the better we fared.
Five years into our grief journey, Rex and I tried something different. We had been making festive attempts, some that worked and others that flopped. There was nothing magical about the fifth year; we were just moving toward a healthier level of acceptance. Todd was gone—we had survived, with the expected bruises. We had been encouraged by a grief therapist to allow the loss to stretch our souls in regard to compassion for others who suffer great loss. And what season felt as awful, awkward and loss-sensitive as the Winter Holidays? Thus began the Annual “Decking the Halls the Night After” Party.
I go to parties; I abhor planning them! But this seemed purposeful, rewarding and fun. We made a guest list of friends and acquaintances that had experienced difficult losses of any kind. It was lengthy! I wrote up the following rhyme:
It’s the Night after Christmas—the holiday’s past;
And for those who are grieving, it’s over! At last!
We MADE it! Survived it!—this difficult season,
No “decking the halls”, there wasn’t much reason.
But we’re celebrating the friends on the block,
This new neighborhood that was formed in the dark.
So the party’s not finished, and may I be candid?
Tonight is for those we KNOW understand it!
COME CELEBRATE—A DAY LATE!
Guests dropped in throughout the evening, bringing finger food and hearts that needed support from folks that got it. There was music, laughter, conversation, tears and tissues. One year we had a survivor entertain us with a piano solo! This festive event became a new normal for some mourners, a time during a complex season when they could be transparent and painfully genuine.
The party became the highlight of our grief work in memory of our son Todd—who caroled on his kazoo in his flip-flops on Christmas Eve. There is always something to celebrate. Always.
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