I used to love the holidays.
Now it marks one year of grief, in the aftermath of my son’s death. One year of the shattering of my once wonderful life, reduced to a veil of foggy confusion. One year of eventually emerging from that fog, crawling on all fours, needing to relearn the most basic of human functions—how to talk to people? How to relax when your mind is in pain? How to move forward, to regain interest in things?
But I am learning, lifting myself from a crawl; step by shaky step, and I am proud of that.
However, the holidays threaten to undo everything.
I suspect that this will happen each and every year. In the season of being grateful, I often find myself reduced to how I was the year prior—a broken mother, bent on all fours with the strength of her grief, keening at the loss of her child, at the forever reminder that we are missing one.
We are an incomplete family, a piece of the puzzle forever unclaimed. We are “three minus one.” While everyone around us seem to have their full families, no “minus one” to ever ache or yearn for, I struggle to scrape up shreds of thankfulness for what I do have.
What are you thankful for?
I know I will be asked this question—by family members, well-meaning strangers, digital advertising.
I am thankful in the most primal of senses.
I am alive.
I am breathing.
I have taken that expression literally, viewing the grief journey as a struggle for survival. Because even when people say that you don’t have a choice but to live— I do make a choice, every day. I choose to pull myself to my shaky feet, to crawl out of bed and face the world without my child.
What are you thankful for?
In the depths of grief, the need to be grateful becomes almost satirical—desperate, cynical, clinging to whatever vestige of gratitude I can hang onto, with my white-knuckled fingers and grit teeth.
I am thankful for my own two feet, my hands, thankful that I can stand, thankful that I can breathe oxygen, thankful for the ceiling above my head and the ground at my feet—anything to appease, to convince myself that I am still a decent person who can appreciate things, although the very worst has happened and my child is dead.
As the season arrives, so does the saccharine sweetness. Families string up smiles and small talk as bountifully and excessively as rows of tinsel and string lights, feigning a contagious, merry cheer that we are all pressured to emulate.
Willing to play my part, I strung my home with wreaths and ornaments and garlands; elaborately lovely fixtures flecked with ruby and jade jewel colors. Our house appears warm and festive, as colorful as the fall leaves gracing the world outside. Yet inside, the past haunts me.
I struggle. I find myself mirroring the jovial spirits of my peers, returning their utterances of “Happy Holidays.” As I say this, I wander inside myself, an unwiilling participant of this merry time of year. Instead, I turn inwards—the Ghost of Christmas Past, trapped far back in time.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I murmur to those around me, while inside my mind wails a phantom’s wail, trapped in the turbulence of memories, never quite returning to the present, never quite joining that moment.
The ghost within transports me, far back in time. It rewinds to those joyful days, over 365 days ago, when I was truly alive and well. It forever roams the hospital hallways, flitting across empty armed mothers and emptier cribs. It focuses on the face of a perfectly beautiful, pristine baby boy, breath stolen from him far too soon. It winds back to the doctor’s stony expression, to the announcement of my child’s death. It brings me face to face with my husband’s wail. It replays the birth of my son, the moment framed with a veil of sadness that will never leave my core.
I struggled to emulate that trauma-free person again, the one who left my body last year; tried to become her for the sake of myself, and for all of those around me. Yet my body refused, instead acting mechanically, my soul a vessel devoid of the present moment.
On Thanksgiving Day, we reveled in one another’s company, our taste buds dancing to the flavors of cranberries; nutmeg; sage. My family piles their plates with hilltops of food, laughter billowing through the air. As they fill their cups with wine, I imagine filling my own--overflowing to the brim with red, red, grief.
They chatter aimlessly with one another, speaking small-talk; babies, work, personal woes and finances—yet I sat quietly, wondering.
They fill their stomachs with turkey, roasts, stuffing and mashed potatoes—yet I felt empty, no matter what I ate.
The chairs were full, tables bustling with life, the chatter of adults and children alike—yet the silence of one weighed on me. The silence of his absence suffocated me, pressing down against my heart like an anvil. Despite its wooden frame swelling with the weight of people, despite the shuffling of feet and the lack of vacant chairs, there would forever be an empty spot at the table.
People gathered all around us, people pressed at my shoulders, yet the empty spot burrowed itself into my heart. Because there should have been, would have been, could have been—
What are you thankful for?
A baby boy at the table, wide eyes and inquisitive, enjoying his first bites of mashed potatoes; turkey; “adult food.” The weightlessness of his innocent smile, the peals of his bright, chirping laughter; the warmth of his tiny embrace, his pure love, his presence.
Sometimes, when I can no longer be thankful, my strength breaks, and bitterness permeates me—true feelings surfacing in trickles of pain that cut bone-deep.
I am not thankful for my son’s death.
I am not thankful that he is not here with us, now.
I am not thankful that he died without warning.
I am not thankful that no one at this table has also lost their child.
I had every right to be unthankful.
How could I sit in a room full of people, yet be utterly alone? I was surrounded by loved ones, yet still I worried—just as I will worry, every year— that they will forget about the invisible boy, the boy who should be playing with his cousins, who should be having all his first moments, here, now; in the world of the living.
At that moment, I wished I truly were a ghost. Then I could feel his presence, even if my own were compromised. I could be with him, somehow.
I celebrate, and yet, I yearn.
My cup is full, yet I remain empty.
When the pain is too heavy, and I can no longer be thankful, I write letters.
Hello my precious Riyad, you would be one-year-old today. You would be crawling by now, babbling things, maybe ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ You would have the chunkiest cheeks, and the brightest smile. You would be loving solids already, and have a few of your teeth.
I miss you so much.
We lost you too soon, far too soon. It has changed me, changed our lives. I know you don’t want mommy to cry, but mommy is in so much pain. Mommy loves you and misses you more and more with each day that passes.
She hopes you are warm, wherever you are; whether its between the folds of time, in the clouds billowing in the sky, in the stars that glimmer at night, even in the earth, cradled in a womb of clay. She hopes that you felt her love, as bright and innocently happy as it was.
She is thankful, every day, for having the honor to have held you. She hopes that somehow you can feel her love now, even when she can’t feel you; see you; hold you in her arms.
Now I just hold you in my heart, and I promise to always do that, until the day that I join you—however we meet, whenever we meet.
Whether it’s atomic fission, whether it’s flying in the clouds, or holding one another in the dirt.
My love will last.
It will last, even when my bones are turned to ash.
I promise you that.
What am I thankful for?
I am thankful for this grief. I am thankful for this pain.
I am thankful for him, and every moment I spent with him—the innocent, the traumatic, the heart rendering.
I am thankful that I can keep him in my heart, that I still have space to hold him, to love him, even if it isn’t in my arms.
I am thankful that he will always be mine—no matter what time passes, no matter how many holidays we have, how many reminders of our incomplete family.
Whether in the land of the living, or the land of the dead.
I am still thankful for him.
As the holidays approach, have you found anything to help you remember your lost loved ones? How do you continue to celebrate, and how have the celebrations changed?