Mind Matters — The Other Side of Celebrations

I remember my mother managing to do it all for the holidays—from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas. She loved to decorate her little dress shop windows—autumn leaves to fake snow (the itchy fiberglass stuff). Living in the cramped rooms behind the store, we made do with a cardboard “fireplace” for the holidays. My little grade school imagination allowed that hearth to be as warm and inviting as any brick or stone edifice.

However, my innocence and delight in holidays became muted when I was fourteen. On Thanksgiving Day that year, my younger cousin, while delivering newspapers on his bicycle, was hit by a drunk driver. He died later that night. I remember my mother taking the call. While I sobbed into my pillow, I thought life will never be the same again. A sense of loss, not only of Roger, but of life as it was, was gone. Before this, I felt safe in the cocoon of family. Imperfect as it may have been, death hadn’t intruded. That a young boy could die had been out of the realm of possibility. Now mortality lurked, a shadow at my shoulder, no respecter of youth. The fragility of life suddenly shook me.

I’ve never gotten inured to the fact of death in life: how we may be resilient spirits, but our flesh is fragile.

This past year, on New Year’s Eve, my godchild, daughter of my first cousin, died at the age of forty-two of an aneurysm. Since then there have been numerous young people I have known either directly or through their parents or grandparents who have died. And not to forget the young persons I knew who died earlier on.

Why am I reflecting on this now? Because holidays, even when they are not marked directly by a death, bring to mind our loved ones who are no longer physically present to us. Grief is all the more poignant at holidays when all “should” be “merry and bright.”

Rather than hiding or swallowing our grief, we can honor it by, for example, lighting a candle at the dining table for our loved ones; setting a place at the table for loved ones; visiting the cemetery; engaging in conversation about our memories. These are just a few of the ways to celebrate a life lived. Thus it is that our resilience resides in encountering our fragility.