Growing up, Christmas meant an 11-foot Fraser fir, cards strung from wall to wall, and waking up at 5 a.m., begging Ma to let me open just one present before Daddy woke up. You could barely see the tree beneath the layers of ornaments, lights, tinsel and presents, but its scent permeated every corner of our house like magic. The women spent all of Christmas Eve cooking turkey, ham, pork and other delights, and Santa would pay a visit every year—until my three-year-old nephew Joseph stared suspiciously at St. Nick’s feet and said, “Santa’s wearing Grandpa’s shoes.”
When my daughter Jillian came along, I expected her to experience a childhood filled with the same wonder of the season as I had. On her first Christmas, a crush of relatives cradled her, passing her from one to the other, cooing at the adorable baby. By her second Christmas, she giggled with joy, rolling around in a sea of torn wrapping paper.
But on her third Christmas, Jillian didn’t have the energy for opening presents. Instead, she rested on my husband Tom’s lap as he unwrapped them for her. At 23-months, she had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive tumor. The next two Christmases fell in the shadows of chemotherapy, surgeries, stem cell transplants, and radiation.
I didn’t know how challenging the holidays could become until Jillian died. Grieving became my full time job. I tried everything: therapy and support groups; prayer, yoga, and meditation; reading, writing, and drawing; traveling; crying in Tom’s arms, only to find fleeting relief, or none at all. The pain was a wildfire in my chest and nothing could put it out.
“Do something new,” said the minister. “Doing the same thing magnifies the loss.”
As a psychologist, I know grief cannot be bypassed. You must walk through it to move beyond it. I set up an anger-management room. I threw all of Jillian’s medical supplies in the shower and stomped them to pieces, screaming and cursing. It didn’t make sense that I was alive and my daughter was dead.
After that, I decided to try doing something “normal.” I went to the mall at Christmastime. Familiar sights, sounds, and aromas overwhelmed me. I started feeling dizzy as I waded through the holiday decorations and happy families. Jillian would have been four, an age where the magic of Christmas is most alive.
I had to leave before I passed out.
“Do something new,” said the minister who ran a support group I went to later that day. “Doing the same thing magnifies the loss.” If only I had known before going to the mall. I was failing at coping. Grief was a journey that seemed to be mine alone and have no end.
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In the support group was another woman around my age who had lost her seven-year-old son to neuroblastoma a few years earlier.
“The first year is awful,” she said. “You’re in a pit and you can’t see the light above. Next to the pit lies a deep abyss. No one wants to go down there, but every time you do, you feel a little lighter when you come out. You can only dive into the abyss for short periods because it is painful beyond belief.”
She understood my experience because it was hers, too. Most of us know the pain of the pit because we’ve been there a time or two, but the abyss is reserved for those who have survived extreme loss.
Later in the week, Tom and I bought a three-foot potted plant at Home Depot that vaguely resembled a Christmas tree. We put it in the foyer, in the spot usually reserved for the Fraser fir. My adult nephew Frankie, more like a brother to me, agreed to help us decorate it. Tom and I pulled boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic and stacked them in the living room.
Wearing a red bandana, tight muscle shirt and ripped jeans, Frankie hobbled in and said, “Me-er-ry Chri-i-stmas,” imitating the voice of a 90-year-old depressed woman. Then he charged into my bedroom, grabbed some Christmas CDs, and blasted them so everyone in the neighborhood could hear. He opened the blinds in the foyer and asked, “Where’s the tree?”
“Right in front of you,” I said, pointing to the houseplant on the floor.
“Maybe we should close the blinds this year,” he said, laughing at the sad little thing. “Not our usual 11-foot Fraser fir, is it?”
Like us, the tree was sad and pathetic, but full of beautiful memories of Jillian.
We giggled as he lifted the plant into position in front of the window anyway. Tom shuffled past us toward the bedroom, rolling his eyes at our giddiness. Frankie pulled out fabrics and ribbons to decorate what began to resemble an altar. Lights and tinsel wouldn’t do for this Christmas plant.
Tears alternated with laughter as we hung dozens of pictures of Jillian on the tree using silver snowflake clips. Each memory, each photo brought Jillian home for Christmas. I couldn’t stop looking at a picture of her third Christmas, a feeding tube attached to her nose, bandages on her cheek to support it in place. I remembered taking a roll of pictures of her wearing that black and white checked dress and hat. Recently diagnosed, that was the worst Christmas ever. Until now.
“Maybe we should sprinkle the tree with Jillian’s ashes for a real special snowflake look,” he said.
“Not funny,” I scowled.
Ignoring my dark mood, Frankie reached into a box of Christmas decorations and pulled out a miniature angel with a white gown that my aunt had crafted years before. As he lifted the angel, her hair fell out in one big clump, just like Jillian’s had.
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We burst into hysterical laughter. In between gasps, Frankie looked up with the angel in hand and said, “Hi, Jillian.”
“It reminds me of her after chemotherapy,” I said, wiping the tears of laughter from my cheeks. We hung the angel on the tree along with a few others. When we were done, we took a few steps back and admired our work.
Tom emerged from the bedroom and saw our tree, “It’s small, bald and beautiful! Just like Jilly-boo. I like it.”
I moved closer to Tom and he put his arm around my shoulder. Looking at the tree, I knew it would help us through the holidays. Like us, it was sad and pathetic, but full of beautiful memories of Jillian.
“Do something new,” said the minister. It’s as if you must create a new chamber in your heart to keep it beating, despite the gaping hole.
Tom and I were eventually able to experience the wonder of a four-year-old at Christmas. On the one-year anniversary of Jillian’s death, I discovered I was pregnant. Our second daughter, Cadence, brought us back to joy and hope. Cadence is nine now, and hoping Santa will bring her a dog this year. Eleven years after Jillian’s death, Christmas is almost Christmas again.
Sylvia Johnson is a Reader’s Digest reader from Tampa, Florida. She is also a member of the Reader’s Digest contributor network.