Christmas Mourning: Learning To Enjoy The Holidays After The Loss Of A Loved One

Hayley, me, Kassandra, Klarke and Cara in our newest pajamas that we received every Christmas Eve

The following is a chapter of my book, “Remember The Good Times: How I’m Overcoming My Cousin & Her Son’s Murder.” It’s available on Amazon if you’d like to read more.

I believe nothing is impossible when it comes to changing the way that you think. However, there is a time of year in particular that I can’t imagine ever being the same. It will always be harder and haunt me more. Sadly, I’m talking about Christmas.

I have always reflected fondly on my childhood Christmas memories. Like many children, it was my favourite time of the year. While I enjoyed presents as much as the next kid, it was always visiting my nana’s when my Auntie Melanie, Uncle Les, and my cousins Hayley and Cara came out that was my favourite. While there are many memories, here are the ones that I most consistently recall.

One of the best times of the year and a sure-fire sign that Christmas was just around the corner was the arrival of the Sears Christmas Catalogue, The Wish Book. I’d spend hours flipping through it. Starting from the back, of course, that’s where all the toys were. It was at nana’s when things got fun though. Hayley and I would sit down at nana’s square kitchen table. A small cushion kept our butts from directly sitting on the wooden chair. First we would draw out the floor plan of our bedrooms on an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper. Then we would go through The Wish Book, page by page, and pick out things that we wanted. We would draw them onto the floor plan of our ideal rooms. I don’t think we ever got or even asked for many of the things we wanted from there. It was just fun to imagine it.

Hayley and I spent most of our time hanging out in nana’s basement where there was no shortage of fun to be had. What must have been our favourite activity was sitting in a large, worn, brown chair. I guess it wasn’t so much that it was large but at the time we were small. We could easily sit side-by-side while we watched an endless loop of cartoons recorded on a VHS tape. Shows like The Care Bears, The Smurfs, The Flintstones, etc. It wasn’t uncommon for our parents to find us sound asleep in that chair at the end of the evening or in the middle of the afternoon.

Another place to sit was on a small rocking chair that Nana kept beside the brown chair. How neither of us flipped off the back of it or broke it all together, I’ll never know. We’d take turns rocking back and forth on it as fast we could. Sometimes we wouldn’t even take turns; we would both just go on it together.

There was also a wood-burning fireplace in the basement. During the holiday season, it would be lit more often than it wasn’t. I loved the smell the fireplace gave off just after it was lit. Once it had been burning for awhile, Hayley and I would play a game where we sat in front of it with our shirts rolled up our backs. We would see who could sit there the longest before one of us had to move because our back was too hot. I don’t remember how long we could sit there or which of us ever won.

Between the brown chair and the rocking chair was a counter where there would always be a bowl of shelled nuts and a nutcracker to crack them. We never excelled at breaking the shell of the nuts; we would get tiny pieces of shell everywhere. There were times where I’d pinch my hand in the cracker when I wasn’t paying too much attention (and even when I was!). Eventually, we’d manage to get a few of them out and after eating them, we’d inevitably become thirsty. That’s when we’d go to the “the cold room.”

The reason for it being called the cold room is probably apparent, it was colder than the rest of the rooms in the basement. The room was poorly insulated so my nana used it as a storage room. Just to the left of the door were the boxes of Co-op Gold pop. There were the red boxes that contained coke, the purple boxes with grape, the dark red boxes with black cherry and the orange boxes with, well, orange. The pop wasn’t quite cold but it wasn’t warm either. It was the perfect drinking temperature that pop could only acquire by sitting in that room. That wasn’t the only thing unusual about the pop.

It was at Nana’s that I learned a whole new way to savour drinking pop from a can. We would shake the can then just open the tab a crack, just enough for the pop to bubble out. Then you would sip it off the top of the can and shake the can a bit when you wanted more. Eventually, I’d get too impatient and crack the can open to finish it but this technique made our pop go from lasting ten or fifteen minutes to a half-hour or an hour. Thinking about it now, it was probably one of my first lessons in savouring things.

In addition to pop, there was an endless supply of baked goods. A particular favourite of mine, and it still probably is, was the lefse my nana made. Lefse is a thin Norwegian flatbread made out of mostly potatoes and flour. It can be topped with essentially anything you like. At nana’s we’d add butter and brown sugar before rolling it up to eat. I wasn’t a fan of butter so I just doubled down on the sugar.

On Christmas Eve, we were always allowed to open one present. Every year I hoped it would be an extravagant gift and every year it was the same thing, pajamas. Hayley, Cara, Klarke, myself, and eventually Kassandra would tear off the wrapping paper to reveal a cereal box. Inside there would be the pajamas that we would sleep in that night. We would all go change into them and then our parents took pictures of us sitting together. My nana carried this tradition on well into our teens.

Christmas morning my family opened our presents at our house and Hayley’s family at my nana’s. Eventually, we would make our way over there, often bringing one of our favourite gifts with us. We would discuss with each other what he got that year, Hayley would often just show me. Then it was back to all other fun activities.

As we aged, we would spend less time in the basement and more time with our parents. New traditions began (or, at least, I could remember taking part in them). Every Boxing Day we’d have a seafood brunch. The mainstays being fried oysters and popcorn shrimp. It took me years to acquire a taste for shrimp, and I’m still working on the oysters.

Some evenings we would sit at the table in my nana’s kitchen and play cards. Among the different games we would play, Spoons was the most infamous. If you aren’t familiar with the game, it is essentially the card equivalent of musical chairs. You put a pile of spoons in the middle of the table, one less spoon than there are people. You play with a deck of cards that consists of a four of a kind for each person playing. Then you deal out four cards each and begin passing a single card to your left until eventually someone gets a four of a kind. Then you turn into wild hyenas attacking a pack of zebras. The first time we played in my nana’s kitchen was almost fatal, or at least for her oven, when Uncle Les and Klarke tumbled out of chairs wrestling for a spoon and took the handle of the oven down with them. Scratches, nicks and trace amounts of blood being drawn was commonplace and bodies would sprawl across the table reaching for a final spoon. The cards didn’t fair much better as they would crumple and fold as we hurriedly passed them to the person beside us. Teams and alliances would form, well, at least, Klarke and I would try our best to make sure my mom ended up empty handed. How Hayley had the courage to play the year she was pregnant with Cayden still boggles my mind! Despite all the nicks and bruises, when the game ended, it was always my cheeks that were the sorest. I’d be smiling or laughing the entire time.

Since Hayley and Cayden’s passing, things have been hard around that time of year. The joy isn’t there like it used to be, almost like there is a dark cloud hanging over everything. It’s hard. I can’t imagine a time where I won’t yearn for times past during the holiday season. I think it will always be a struggle. I don’t know any techniques that will change this but acceptance can help.

Throughout the fall of 2012, I was getting by alright. I had my tattoo, pink socks and my positive mindset was becoming more consistent. I was starting to think maybe I was getting better. It didn’t last. These joyful memories I just described began to haunt me. For one reason or another, it had felt like my childhood was dead. I started torturing myself again. I was constantly reminded of these memories. From Christmas lights to fresh snowfall, every sign of the holidays started to cut into me, and not only did I let it, but I was also pushing the knife in deeper.

There was no defining moment for me where I had become fed up with being miserable again. One day, in that December of 2012, I decided I’d had enough and I was going to change it.

First, and perhaps the most important thing I did, I have already mentioned. I decided I was going to change. I didn’t know how but I was completely sure I would. I would be willing to try anything. I wouldn’t dismiss any ideas until after trying them. I was continuing to practice framing everything in a positive way. Once you completely believe something is attainable, that’s when you start working towards it, that’s when you won’t let anything or anyone (including yourself) stop you. It wasn’t until I believed that I could change, that changes slowly started taking place. That took a long time for me. However, I think if I had focused on just doing these few things, it would have happened much quicker.

I wrote out the excuses I was telling myself that I thought might be keeping me in a rut. I encourage you to do the same, much like you did with your fears a few chapters ago. Think hard, try to write out the actual things you tell yourself. Then address each one, and come up with evidence of why it might not be true. Here is what I had come up with for myself:

Reasons I should be miserable:

  • If I don’t feel miserable, it means I don’t care about Hayley.
  • Something unfair happened to our family.
  • She was taken too soon.
  • This shouldn’t have happened to her.

“If I don’t feel miserable it means I don’t care about her.”

With this belief, there is no way I can win. I’ll feel bad when I’m grieving over her and I’ll feel bad if I’m not grieving over her. Thinking like this only shows that I didn’t care about myself.

“Something unfair happened to our family.”

Unfortunately, things like this happen, who am I to decide if it’s fair or not? Is it fair that I had such a positive person in my life when many people go their whole lives not knowing a single supportive person? Is it fair that the people who love me have to deal with my despicable behaviour because I’m hung up on something that has nothing to do with them?

“They were taken too soon.”

Again, who am I to decide when someone’s life is supposed to end? Most people would probably agree that it was “too soon” but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. What this says is “they were taken too soon for our liking.” Either way, I’m assigning more negativity to the situation than I should be.

“This shouldn’t have happened to her.”

This is a hard one to accept. I like to imagine Hayley as a perfect human being. Unfortunately, no one is perfect and even she made bad decisions. I wish she had an opportunity to learn from her mistakes instead of them being fatal. At the end of the day, no one is exempt from having bad things happen to them, no matter what kind of person they are.

Now you might be thinking Karson you’re crazy for arguing against yourself on those points! You might disagree with my reasoning too. Despite the arguments I make, deep down I still believe they were taken too soon, that it was unfair and it shouldn’t have happened to them. What I no longer do is assign the negativity to it.

I’ve heard many people say when you are feeling down try to come up with reasons to feel happy. This didn’t work for me and it still doesn’t. I prefer this approach of attempting to debunk why I’m feeling miserable. If you struggle with writing it out, I’d recommend writing out your list of reasons when you’re feeling down then argue them when you’re feeling better. After you do it once, you are pretty much set, the list is always there to see. You can come back and look at it whenever you need. The reasons not to feel miserable will be right in front of your face.

Having trouble coming up with reasons why you shouldn’t feel bad? Try talking to a friend. When I tell a friend that I’m feeling miserable and they ask why, I’ll try to explain myself. I often find when trying to justify my mood it sounds silly. I’ll keep attempting to find a valid explanation but can never really come up with one because I see how trivial my problem is. If you can’t point it out, your friend probably will.

We have addressed our excuses for solving the large problem of being unhappy but now it’s time to put a microscope to the misery we’re feeling. Be as precise as possible as to why you’re hurting. This is key. In my case “Christmas is hard because I miss Hayley and nothing will ever be the same again”, or ”our family has been robbed of two members” wasn’t quite good enough. Eventually, I came up with this:

“Now that Hayley and Cayden are no longer with us, Christmas is extremely difficult. A lot of my enjoyment from Christmas came from nostalgia of Christmas as a child and all those memories are tied to Hayley. Now that Hayley is no longer here these moments are dead, they make me feel sad instead of joyful.”

Once you become aware of what’s causing you grief, it becomes much easier to treat.

In my case, the memories themselves were no different but I had changed how they made me feel. If how I felt changed once, it could change again. I began researching the Internet for “how to accept loss” but was frustrated with my findings. Most people said things like “see things for what they are,” “take things less personally,” “let go of the past,” etc. These are all great pieces of advice but how the fuck do I get to feel that way?

I found two techniques to be the most effective for accepting the situation:

  1. The Alien Technique

I like to pretend I’m an alien. You can pretend to be anyone unfamiliar with the situation but I always feel an alien is a safer bet. In case you were wondering, I pretend I’m green alien, not a white one. This alien’s job is to observe how I act and report on it to his alien friends. During Christmas, he would have probably said that I make myself feel miserable about happy memories and that I don’t try doing anything to make myself feel better.

This trick prevents me from getting too wrapped up in myself. Observing me from someone else’s shoes makes it easier to see how I thought I should act. I could think I wanted to get better all I want but if I didn’t start taking action, I wasn’t going to get anywhere.

This trick is useful for any pursuit. Say you wish to be a painter. Do your actions coincide with your desires? Would the alien tell his friends that you indeed are doing everything you can to become a painter? I have found no better way to mentally myself accountable for something.

  1. What Would Hayley Think?

While it can’t be used in as many situations as the alien technique, for me this one is far more powerful. In life, she would always find a way to cheer me or anyone else up. She would never want to see me beat myself up the way I had been. It’s my responsibility to take the pain and the injustice I feel and turn it into something positive, something she’d be proud of.

Every loss is an opportunity to strengthen yourself. Perhaps there’s someone you have lost in your life who meant a lot to you? Put yourself in their head, would they be proud of the way you’re acting? I was okay with letting myself down, but I didn’t want to let her down, that’s what ultimately led to me changing.

We can’t change things that have happened but we do have the power to shape how we let it affect us. We can choose to let it motivate and inspire us to be better or we can use it as an excuse to hold ourselves down. Turning your pain into inspiration is no easy task but I think it’s worth it. You have to believe that it is something you want, and something you can do. Then it’s just a matter of time until your brain starts shifting its way of thinking. The more you practice, the quicker it will happen.

Accepting a loss is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans. I’ve been in the same sort of place you are, though. I was a person who thought anything to do with thinking positive was a bunch of hippy B.S. I was a person who began to see the value in positive thinking but then got lost and frustrated trying to find my way there. Looking back, I can see that it was my brain that was standing in my way all along. The excuses I made wouldn’t be acceptable for someone else to have, but they were for me. That’s why these techniques of putting myself in someone else’s mind work for me and why I think they can work for you too.

Christmas is always going to be a challenging time of year now but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, I could use it as a chance to whine, gather sympathy and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes that’s what is easy. If I dig deeper, I can see that it’s not as bad as I make it seem sometimes. I still get to be surrounded by people I love and I won’t be the only one missing her, we all will. Instead of getting lost in myself, though, I’ll remember other people are struggling with it too and try to help. I’ll try to make it better instead of dwelling on how bad it is. I think that would make Hayley proud.