I walked into our house the other day and heard Christmas music playing on Pandora. All that schmaltzy, sentimental holidaymusic that just oozes nostalgia and defines so much of what we think of as the holiday season. And on came the silky smooth voice of Johnny Mathis belting out “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But like so many navigating grief and trauma, I heard that song and thought, “yea, not so much.”
Two years ago, I lost my 21-year-old stepson to suicide. A beautiful, sweet, loving young man who, in a moment of extreme pain and impulsivity, made a decision that irreparably shattered our lives forever. Viktor was the center of our world; an only child, he was his father’s buddy, his mini-me, and r
eason for everything. The loss for Neil has been devastating. And while we are slowly accepting the realities of this grief, something we learn to live with like an unwanted guest that we tolerate but would prefer to be rid of forever, we know that everything has changed.
And like it or not, the holiday season arrives each year, intruding on our cocoon of grief with those pesky expectations to be joyful and partake in the ‘spirit’ of the season. Like a filter you choose when editing photos, we no longer see the season through the same vibrant and saturated lens. Instead, it’s something more muted, more grey. There is an inclination to say why bother; what’s the point? Why get a tree or buy presents? To toss everything aside because of what has been lost; because of the searing reminder that what was once a time of happiness and joy is no longer, that we’d rather skip it altogether. And we did just that the first two years. But we’ve come to realize that we need to honor him, make him part of our new narrative and fill in those little bits and pieces of darkness with something even more powerful: light.
There’s a special magic that comes with Christmas lights. They can take an empty space filled with darkness and transform it into a place of illuminated warmth and joy. Viktor loved Christmas lights. Every year since he was a boy, his father would cover their Manhattan brownstone with lights, and later when we moved to South Carolina, we continued that tradition and made the season festive and bright. That ended in 2018. Oh, we did the bare minimum, largely to be good citizens and play our part, but with no real effort.
They say time does not heal pain associated with a loss but it is what you do with that time that matters. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, Neil decided to string lights on a few of our trees “like they do on Park Avenue.” As I watched him painstakingly attached the lights on every single branch with so much care and dedication, I realized it was all about finding him in this darkness and connecting with him. It was bittersweet to watch him pour so much of his heart into his work, but I understood the ‘why.’ And when a neighbor commented on how beautiful they looked, I heard him say, “It’s therapeutic.” 7000 lights later, there are three stunningly beautiful trees that glisten and magnify the night with pure love and light. Lights that say you are never forgotten, you are always here, we honor you, miss you, and love you. And if just for a moment we can hear in our hearts his laughter, see that big boyish grin on that beautiful face, then that is our season illuminated. That is our present under the tree, the embrace of the season, and in that moment, we do have hope and joy.
This new narrative is not the one we want, but it is, nonetheless, the one we have etched out of the darkness. There is a reluctance among those in grief to allow yourself to let that light in and feel something positive. That ‘celebrating’ the season is somewhat of a sacrilege or is dishonoring your loved one because you’ve stepped away from your vigil of loss for a moment. But if in that moment you can transcend the heaviness of grief by connecting some little bits and pieces of them in whatever form that takes, then the season is bearable, maybe even beautiful.