Surviving the Holidays

Oh the holidays. The holidays can be tricky for everyone- there are always expectations that we need to meet- people to see, family to visit with, presents to buy, and just a whole lot of stress in general. Grief adds an extra layer to that stress. When you are already missing someone it can be really, really difficult to handle those things. It can be really, really difficult to even WANT to handle those things.

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This was our third Christmas without Gabe, and really in many ways it was just as hard as the first. I know I’ve mentioned Gabe’s loud personality before. That personality would REALLY come out on Christmas. He loved everything about it- the presents, the family time, the lack of school. And the cinnamon rolls. Our Christmas morning tradition since the boys were little has been to have cinnamon rolls. Not from scratch-the kind from the can- but they LOVE them. Gabe especially loved them. It’s one tradition we have kept up every single year and still do. It survived me going gluten free (it’s hard to make wonderful smelling cinnamon rolls that I can’t eat. A  GF snickerdoodle cookie with frosting isn’t quite the same!). The cinnamon roll tradition also survived the first year without Gabe. It was hard and especially painful that first Christmas, but then again everything was.

Now that we just finished our third Christmas without him I have realized we will keep surviving, but also keep missing him. His exuberance will always be missing. That missing exuberance makes the holiday season exceptionally difficult for us. I’m learning that each year will look different, and that WE have to decide how each year will go. Those expectations I mentioned above? We get to choose how we handle them. Our little family that is now 4 has to decide how Christmas will look for us. We have to decide- not based on those expectations but on how we can best survive it and how it will be the least difficult for us. I don’t expect that everyone will understand- the vast majority truly can’t. But I do feel the need to remind others that as difficult as it may feel for one or two traditions to be altered, for my little family every single thing is altered. Every day, holiday season or not. So we just have to survive. We will celebrate, or not, as we see fit. We are not being selfish. We are surviving.

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Ornaments (or ordaments as Gabe used to say!

I remember it so well. One year when the boys were little Doug and I weren’t going to set up a Christmas Tree. We were going to be traveling and had 3 VERY young children. It didn’t seem worth the effort. Then a Hallmark commercial came on where some children went up to the attic to find Christmas decorations. They started pulling out their favorite ornaments and talking about them. At that moment I was manipulated by advertising and couldn’t imagine NOT putting up the tree. Our boys had to have those memories.

I think we have put up a tree every year since. Most years have been our trusty artificial tree. One year we actually cut down our own tree. We always have to rearrange the living room to fit the tree. It’s cramped with it there, but it seems like a necessary part of Christmas. There are so many memories on that tree. The boys each have favorite ornaments and put their own up. Because it is so covered in memories though, it is now also very painful.

The first Christmas after Gabe died we contemplated not putting the tree up, but realized that the other boys deserved to have it up. It was far more painful for Doug and I than them, I think. It required moving Gabe’s shelf in the living room which was a very sad task. I ended up leaving the house while Doug did that part.

Before we decorated the tree we started a new tradition. We all got in the car and went to Hobby Lobby. We each chose an ornament that reminded us of Gabe. Here are our 2016 ornaments:

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First we got the picture frame for his school picture. My choice was the cross with a horseshoe- for his faith and because he LOVED horses. Doug picked the headphones-he always wore big headphones. The middle brother picked Nemo because that was Gabe’s favorite movie- He identified with Nemo because Nemo had a broken fin and he had a broken heart. The youngest picked the bobbers, because they loved fishing together. Going to pick out those ornaments was a great way to remember and talk about Gabe and incorporate him into our holiday.

We decided that we would make it a tradition and here is a photo of last years choices:

46990293_10218074445600851_4174367668050067456_nLast year I chose the angel wings with a heart-he is my heart angel. Doug chose the scout shirt because that was such a big part of his life. Middle brother picked a pencil- because Gabe used to eat pencils (I’m not kidding, he had a disorder called pica and he ate non food items. Pencils were a favorite). The youngest picked a car. Both of them loved cars. One of my favorite memories of Gabe was him running through the house after a Corvette passed telling his brother about “A Vette! A Vette!”. He was so excited to tell his brother.

This year we went again and there are always some pretty perfect ones:

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I picked the gumballs- Gabe often chewed gum to try to help with the aforementioned pica, but he ended up eating the gum. Not only did he eat it he would eat a pack in a very short time. We would hide it around the kitchen, but he always found it and the gum would disappear so fast! Doug chose the airplane because of memories on a favorite scout trip to the airshow. My middle picked a seal- Gabe loved the aquarium and had a stuffed harbor seal that was a favorite. My youngest picked another car!

I think it helps to have this new tradition. We would of course much rather have him here, putting up his own ornaments. But since he isn’t here we do this and create a section for him on our tree. It is a tradition we will probably keep for a long time. I guess eventually we will need a tree just for his ornaments, but I’m ok with that!

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Four? Five?

I’ll never forget it. We were in Grammies ice cream very soon after Gabe’s death. We were getting ice cream. Because sometimes something so awful happens and you have to do something good. Something happy. After we all ordered they rang us up, and said “Just the four?” Just the four. It was a punch in the gut feeling realizing that we were now just the four. I wanted to scream NO! There are five. There were five. There SHOULD be five.

In an instant our family had gone from a family of five to a family of four. Early in June that year we took our first vacation as just the four. It was nice in some ways- we got to get away, get out of our house that held so much sadness, and try hard to create new memories. But Gabe’s absence was palpable. When we got to the cabin in Tennessee the boys were excited, but Gabe’s excitement for everything was always so electric. If he had been there he would have been running from room to room, loudly exclaiming about how wonderful the cabin was, claiming his bed, and immediately playing pool. He would have changed into his swimsuit and gone right into the hot tub. He would have then obsessed about what we would do next because that was how he was- always looking at the next fun thing to do. Ready for the next bit of excitement.

As the months passed that four not five thing became a regular thing- going out to eat, to movies, even going to parties. Replying that four of us would attend. It slowly got a little bit less painful, but every time it stings.

Since that first vacation we have had two other vacations- one with each of our families. And they are wonderful but also extremely painful. We know that Gabe is missed, but we shouldn’t be able to fold an entire row of seats down in the van. We should need 3 in the back. We should need the box on the roof for extra things because there should be another teenager packing his boogie board and way too much stuff. And when we arrive there should be that exuberant person running through the house exploring every inch. He should have been there complaining because he was impatient and never wanted to wait for anything. He always wanted to do the next thing.

 

Vacations are maybe one of the hardest things- seeing the cousins grow up and wondering so much about where he would be fitting in. I’m sure he would be talking about college with the oldest ones, and he would love being followed around by the youngest ones. I know him not being there is painful for everyone else, but for those of us who lived with him it really is a different level of hurt.

But sometimes we have to do things that hurt. We have to keep going even when we don’t want to. We have to put on a happy face even though the tears are just below the surface. We have to make new memories for the brothers who have been through so much. Because they deserve happiness. Because we all deserve happiness.  Even more now than before. So there will be more vacations and new memories. But we will always remember and we will always wonder. What would it be like if there were still five?

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How many children do you have?

This question. This innocent question. It’s often a conversation starter, and it helps people find some sort of common thing to talk about. It truly is a great question for most. Until the worst happens. Then it becomes a question that you avoid like the plague.

About 2 months after Gabe died I went out with a friend and met a few people. One of them asked me how many children I had. I froze. And I said two. I said their ages and we talked a bit. I felt sick. I felt horribly sick. I wanted to leave. Eventually I excused myself and went to cry in the bathroom. Because I felt like I had slapped Gabe in the face by not acknowledging him. Because he is my child too. I don’t have two. I have THREE. But I was afraid of where the conversation would go. I think I was protecting that person from having to face the horribly reality that was now my life.

As the evening went on we talked a bit more and eventually she asked about my boys’ schools. And that’s when I mentioned Gabe. I told her where the younger boys went, and then I said that I had a son who was in high school, but he died. At that moment she knew who I was. I don’t really remember the rest of the night. I made small talk and eventually left. I will never forget that night. The first time I was asked that question.

As the months went by it would happen again, by another mom at the pool, by new doctors, by other people who didn’t know me before. I learned to not ask anyone that question- because it can be a painful answer for them and because it is usually reciprocated with the same question. As time as passed I have refined my answers and evaluate the situation. To the mom at the pool, just a few months after his death, I said “I have 2 here “(to me meaning at the pool). Now if asked how many I say three, and then tell the person that my middle son is — years old and my youngest son is –years old. Most of the time people aren’t really listening so they don’t catch that I said 3 and gave the ages of 2. If it’s a person that I know I will see again, or attends my church or other place where we will come into contact again I usually do the above thing with the ages and add that my oldest died at 15.

It’s never an easy question, and it ALWAYS makes me pause. There is a very complex amount of thought that happens in that short time of figuring out the best way to answer. What I have realized, though, is that I HAVE to say I have 3. Because I do. And I always will. I have also realized that while that person may be uncomfortable for a few minutes, I am uncomfortable always and probably will be to some extent for the rest of my life. My child will always be missing and that is an uncomfortable feeling that can’t be described.

So I will continue to say three. And maybe in the process I will help a few people feel a bit less uncomfortable about the thought of child loss, or even encourage another parent of loss to have the confidence to speak out so they can remind the world of the missing piece in their heart.