Home for Christmas – The holidays and grief

Siblings at the SeaTac Airport
Reunited with my siblings at the airport – my sister brought her dog Chipa home from Paraguay! December 2017

I’m jet lagged and awake at 5 a.m., sitting exactly where I didn’t want to be at this time this year – I’m home for Christmas. Now before you start calling me a scrooge (which I probably would have done in the past), hear me out.

When people say the holidays can be hard, it’s not something you fully grasp until they become hard for you. As someone who had an abundance of holiday spirit, I would have classified these people as grinches.

It’s been a year and a half since my mom died, so it’s not my first Christmas without my mom. Shouldn’t I be over it by now? A fellow blogger recently told me something I resonated with – losing a parent isn’t something you ever get over, you just start living a new normal. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And believe me, it’s been a very new normal traveling around the world.

Last year my family fled the country to spend Christmas in Mexico. It was our first Christmas without my mom and no one wanted to be home. Technically, we were going to spend that Christmas out of the country anyway, as my sister was living down in Paraguay so we were originally planning to meet in the middle. No one had objections to skipping Christmas at home.

My family in Cancun last year for Christmas
My family in Cancun last year for Christmas (2016)

Christmas the way it used to be was something we wouldn’t be able to replicate, so why not try something completely different? Christmas in paradise. It was a nice and well-needed vacation at the time. We also hadn’t seen my sister since she was home for my mom’s memorial six months prior, so it was wonderful to reunite.

We kept some of our holiday traditions alive, like going to church on Christmas Eve and getting Christmas pajamas from the “elves” (pjs would appear on our beds when we got home from church) to wear on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. As we had done with my mom a couple years before in Hawaii, we continued the new tradition of wearing our “elf pajamas” on the beach (much to my little brother’s embarrassment – he was called “Elf” in the locker room for a while afterwards, sorry Michael!).

Family on beach in Elf Pajamas
My family on the beach in Maui before the holidays in our elf pajamas in December 2014

This year the plan had been the same – Christmas in Mexico. My dad booked a room in Cabo over the holidays with his timeshare property.

Family Christmas pajamas on beach in Mexico
Wearing our pajamas on the beach in Cancun on Christmas in 2016

My plan was to meet my family there – Matt and I didn’t know where exactly we’d be flying from but we knew we’d be somewhere in Asia in December and we would figure it out (like we always do). I hoped from Mexico we could easily continue our journey and head south to travel to the other countries in Central America (Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua) that we didn’t have time to visit earlier in the year (we had a deadline to be in Spain by June for my friend’s wedding).

In the fall, my dad became worried about the travel warning issued in Mexico. Hell, this wouldn’t be the first time this year Matt and I traveled somewhere with a travel warning (and were perfectly fine) but you know how these things can worry parents (and I guess to be fair, most people).

My dad gave us a choice, Mexico or home for Christmas. Since my brother got terribly sick our last day in Mexico (Montezuma’s revenge), he wasn’t keen on returning to Mexico.

My sister hadn’t been home since my mom’s memorial 18 months prior, so she was leaning towards coming home, as she wanted a break from the Paraguayan summer heat (over 100 degrees as of lately) and life in the campo. She also wanted to bring her dog Chipa home, since her Peace Corps service ends in May and she plans to backpack around South America after – this would be the best opportunity to bring her dog home. Maybe I’m not supposed to break the news (sorry Kat!) but she ended up getting med school interviews scheduled at home over break, so it’s all worked out for the best that she’s home.

I wanted to go to Mexico, but I could tell home is where the rest of my family wanted to be and home was easily the most practical option. After losing nearly $4,000 due to my emergency passport incident (no, insurance did not cover it because apparently visa issues aren’t covered), home would easily be a more budget-friendly option. But coming home would mean the end of my trip around the world, which I never wanted to end (do you really blame me?).

Family at church on Christmas Eve
My family at church on Christmas Eve in December 2015 – my mom’s last Christmas

I honestly dreaded coming home for the holidays. Not because I hate my family (I was excited to see them, especially since I hadn’t seen my sister since I visited her in Paraguay in March) and not because I hate Christmas – both of those are untrue, but because the traditional holiday season has become hard.

The thought of being home for Christmas would cause the back of my eyes to sting with tears, threatening to topple out. Every time I pictured my family at home on Christmas without my mom, I would have to abruptly change my thoughts to stop myself from crying in public. The image in my head just felt so empty and depressing. Like, what would we even do on Christmas without her there? Would we just sit around crying? Hopefully and likely not but that’s where my mind would go. There is certainly no way we would make it to Christmas Eve church on time without my mom shuffling us out the door.

Even though we went to Mexico for Christmas last year, the holiday season alone was hard enough. Take last year’s Christmas party for my work. It was at Seattle Aquarium, which was a fun venue. Since I was working from home and on a new team, it was nice to see some of my old co-workers. Matt and I took a Lyft into the city so we could enjoy the festivities (and of course the open bar – don’t drink and drive!).

Couple in front of Seattle Great Wheel at night
At my company’s holiday party in December 2016

We were in the banquet hall after dinner, heading back to our table when the song “Mary did you know” by the Pentatonix started playing. I began to have a panic attack/grief burst that I was totally unprepared for.

When I was my mom’s caregiver in her final months, I would play her music on her phone from YouTube as she would drift off to sleep (which she did often) to try to at least ease her mind of her constant pain. Nothing ever worked and she was always in pain.

Sometimes when we were alone listening to music and she was asleep, I would allow myself to cry, as it was something I wouldn’t do in front of her or virtually anyone else at the time. My mom needed me to be strong. My mom liked to listen to peaceful music at that time – there were a few piano tracks I would play her and she loved the a cappella group Pentatonix. “Hallelujah” and “Mary did you know” were their two tracks I would rotate between.

I didn’t know the song was a trigger. The sweater dress I was wearing (which I later found out my sister bought with my mom the year before to wear to my dad’s work Christmas party, the last year she would attend a Christmas party) felt like a hot fire blanket on my skin as I began to break out in sweat. The air was slowly being sucked from my lungs and I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. I tried to explain to Matt what was going on, but I didn’t have right the words and he didn’t understand. Then I became angry at him. I didn’t want to make a scene. I had to get out.

I fled to the bathroom, already fearing whatever awkward encounter I was going to have with whoever was in there. But maybe someone could offer support. I was surprised to find the huge bathroom completely empty. I held onto the sink, looked in the mirror and began to break down in silent sobs. “I miss you mom,” I croaked, hoping she could somehow comfort me from heaven.

Still scared that someone would walk in, I retreated to the last stall at the end of the long bathroom. I was in the handicap bathroom for what felt like a long time. I leaned against the wall and then sat on the toilet, trying to compose myself. I wiped my sweat and tears with toilet paper.

When I emerged out of the stall, I went to try to do damage control on my makeup. I was again thankful for waterproof mascara (necessary as a grieving girl living in the pacific northwest – aka tear-proof and rainproof). From the bathroom, I heard the president of my company start his holiday speech. Since I would have to walk out near the front of room where I presumed the speech was being made, I decided to wait it out and listen from the safety of the women’s room. I was grateful for the extra time to recuperate and glad the speech could distract me from my grief.

I recovered and enjoyed the rest of the night, not missing the opportunity to take a photo with Scuba Santa.

Scuba Santa at Seattle Aquarium
With Scuba Santa at my company’s holiday party in 2016

This year in Asia, holiday decorations were abundant in Singapore as early as October and when we were in the Philippines in November. I’m someone who has always waited to start celebrating Christmas until after Thanksgiving so I found the decorations a little excessive (and they felt out of place in the warm climate).

In mid-November, Matt and I were waiting in the lobby of our hotel in Cebu City (Philippines) before our flight to Palawan. The hotel was decked from head to toe in Christmas decorations with Christmas music playing. Matt was editing photos when the song Silent Night came on. Before I knew it, tears were rolling down my cheeks. Hello holiday grief.

I’m sure I must have heard this song dozens of times last holiday season without any notable reaction. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was crying. Maybe it was the line “mother and child, love’s pure light.” Matt didn’t realize and asked me a question about which edit I liked better, so I wiped my tears and answered and moved on with the day.

Christmas Tree in Bangkok, Thailand
Christmas Tree in Bangkok, Thailand – December 2017

It’s not to say that my holidays are now completely without joy, as I’ve partaken in many festivities and parties without a grief related meltdown and had fun. I still love the lights and the cookies and the songs and the sweaters. Despite initially being a little depressed about being home and feeling the absence of my mom, I have been grateful to be with family and friends.

My sister and I decided to go on a “secret mission” to get a Christmas tree (my dad had a small fake one up on our house) since we have always had a real Christmas tree. We picked out a pretty unconventional one (think of a tall, bare, and skinny Charlie Brown Christmas tree), to which the workers questioned our choice, but we knew we had to have it. We needed something different. We needed something imperfect and messy and beautiful in it’s own way. Like our Christmas.

Being home this holiday season is one of the biggest personal fears I’ve had to face this year. But it has turned out to be rewarding. Plus I heard “Mary did you know” playing at a holiday party last night and I didn’t have a meltdown. Progress.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you are able to spend it with the people you love.

Elf Pajamas on the beach
Merry Christmas!

2 thoughts on “Home for Christmas – The holidays and grief

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. Your travels and thoughts are inspiring. I wish you and yours a warm and cozy holiday filled with happy memories and more to come.


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