I recently came across a note my stepmom Sue wrote just days before she died. It began, “If I had my life to live over” and was a manifesto of sorts of all the things she would do differently. It came as no surprise to any of us that “eat more ice cream” was on the list.
It has been almost six years since Sue died of brain cancer. Her passing was swift and unexpected. One day she was seemingly healthy; three grey, winter weeks later, she was gone.
I noticed my Dad and sister put the Christmas tree up a little late that year. They didn’t add lights or ornaments until just before Christmas. I was annoyed they were too busy to stay on top of this simple tradition. “If Sue were here…” I would often think to myself.
We opened gifts on Christmas Eve like always and tried to maintain some sense of normalcy. My sisters and I did our best to help cook and wash dishes, tasks Sue gladly did while singing a loud and off-key rendition of “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
My family never excelled at talking about emotions, but one thing I’ve learned since our first Christmas without Sue is that acknowledging how hard it is actually makes things easier. As much as we tried to do things the way we always had, everything has changed. Acknowledging that helps us move forward. Simple things, like commenting to each other how much we miss her bad singing and practical gifts, go a long way in making Christmas less hard.
I’ve also learned to give others room to grieve in their own way. My family wasn’t simply neglecting a family tradition by not putting the tree up at the beginning of December, they were struggling to take over a role previously played by someone they dearly loved and deeply missed. They needed more time and that’s ok.
Finding joy in this season is still difficult, but acknowledging the difficulty and granting my family the benefit of the doubt helps. So does the ice cream we are eating in Sue’s memory. We’re working to keep our regrets about life as short as her list.