The holiday season brings a certain meaning that is followed by a certain heaviness. For this writer, after four years, I am expecting it. Last year I fooled myself by thinking I turned the corner. Our children and grandchild were going to visit, and I was determined to put up the trains under the largest tree ever. I even put lights outside and our homemade manger scene. It reminded me of the girl in “Ordinary People” who told the protagonist, “Let’s have the best Christmas ever.”
But there came a moment that was inescapable, and all of us sat in silence when we either felt the absence or the presence of our oldest son. I am aware of self-fulfilling prophesy, and how attitude determines outcome. I am also aware of biology and how neurotransmitters pass through the brain and effect structures that send hormones through the rest of the body.
So, this heaviness is real. A hiking partner used to tease me and tell me it was all in my head. Well he was half-right. My brain was transmitting messages that told the rest of my body it was fatigued. Cortisol is a stress hormone that leads to memory loss and fatigue. The person no longer thinks clearly, and their body no longer reacts as sharply as it could.
With family comes an undeniable history that colors the meaning of the season. Old relationships are renewed at a time when we want everything to be perfect. We want to be thankful but now thankful comes at a cost. It is so much easier to be thankful when all the chairs around the table are filled with family.
It is special to see how nieces and nephews have grown, to see who is pregnant, and to hold the latest baby. To sit next to the matriarch or the patriarch of the family is equally special. They live their life with grace. To become the matriarch means that everyone else dies. Brutal, isn’t it? They know the history, they remember when Aunt so and so made the pies, they remember when they made the pies, and now they are satisfied when their daughter now makes the pies.
It’s not the circle of life, it’s more like a squiggly line. It’s not a roller coaster. On a roller coaster, the only satisfaction is when it stops, and life doesn’t stop. But there are highs and lows that build us into real people. And we want to be around authentic people – they make us better.
We don’t want to be around mopey, “gloomsday,” sad sacks.
“What me, a sad sack?”
“Not me, I’m optimistically waiting for the world to end.”
“Coming from a long line of depressives, it’s in my DNA. It’s biology, right?” Not entirely.
You have a choice. I know. You didn’t have a choice on the day, the day you found out. Maybe you fell to the floor, maybe you cried uncontrollably, maybe you were stunned beyond belief. You were so tired you felt like you couldn’t stand up. You were so tired you couldn’t sleep.
That’s biology, that’s normal, and expected. But it’s known that biology can be influenced. Laughter, exercise, being around positive people, even pets can affect endorphin’s in our brains that are natural opioids, and bathe us in a relaxing sense of accomplishment.
So go. Go to the family get-together. Eat some candied yams and stuffing, have yourself some pumpkin pie. Hold a baby, talk to a great-grandmother, and hug a nephew. But know where you left your coat. Know where the bathroom is, or the pool table in the basement. You may need one of them, you may use all of them. At some point the heaviness may be too difficult, so you excuse yourself, take some time, it is Okay.
I know – it’ll never be the same. That hurts. For me, as time goes on, I’m slowly developing an appreciation that Aaron would have really liked seeing so and so, or he would have liked talking to Uncle what’s his name, or playing with little who was that. It’s sad. That’s one word for it. But how you label your emotions, is how you experience them.
For me, my heaviness is a friend who reminds me that he is near and I will be Okay.
Andy is a Clinical Psychologist who lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident and now authors articles on bereavement. Look forward to his upcoming posts, quiz, and book, “When Sunday Smiled.” Follow him at his website, AndyMDavidson.com and Facebook.com/ThroughLifeandLoss to find out more about prolonged grief.