Last year I ran away from Christmas. We packed up as a family and attempted to distract ourselves from the fact that Emily wasn’t with us for the first time in 21 years. It didn’t work. My grief still found in me on the ski slopes, as I imagined Emily snowboarding next to me. My grief walloped me over the head during Christmas Eve mass. I tried to be grateful for the blessings I still had in my life. But the year of firsts—first Christmas, first birthday, first sibling’s graduation—was nearly impossible to navigate. There is no roadmap for living with such enormous loss.
Now time has catapulted me into Year Two. I read several posts from women, who are part of a Facebook group, who have lost children to opioid overdose. They wrote that Year Two was more heart wrenching than Year One, following the loss of a child. I didn’t want to believe it, but in many ways it is true. I realized I spent most of Year One in shock. But so many people also rallied around me, my family and our cause, Emily’s Hope. I found some comfort in that. The rug had been pulled out from under us and everything was raw and miserable. But like a good little soldier, I marched on. I marched on to the beat of helping others.
Then Year Two settled in—the shift in my reality was not immediate—Year Two snuck up on me as the months went on. Now, I’m more than halfway into it. While Year One was raw, hot and often bubbling over with bitterness: Year Two is cold and isolating and like being trapped in a long narrow shaft between two icy mountains. Year Two is REALITY. Reality sets in like an unwelcome house guest who has stayed too long. It’s annoying. It’s infuriating. It’s heartbreaking. And it just is. The more time that passes, the more real it is that my daughter, Emily, isn’t going to walk through my front door, with her border collie at her side, ever again. She’s not going to sit around the fire with us this Christmas Eve decked out in her Christmas pajamas, socks and wrapped in her Christmas blanket. She won’t be here for any future Christmases. It’s a hole in all of our lives that can’t be filled. It will remain empty.
In Year Two, other people move on with their lives. They sympathize, sure. But “time’s up” when it comes to grieving during Year Two. The world moves on, the same old pressures return and I’m expected to move on as well. But part of me never will. I am sure this is true for any parent who has lost a child. Year Two is also accepting the fact that no one can truly stay by your side in grief. It’s a lonely place to be. I’m trying to push forward, doing what’s expected of a mom for Christmas with my family. They need the security of our family traditions and while I abandoned those customs last year, I have been attempting to pick them up again.
And then the fudge was didn’t turn out. That was my breaking point this holiday season. Emily always helped me make the fudge every year. This year her sister stepped up to the plate to do it with me. I tried to live in the moment and not think about all the previous years of making the marshmallow cream fudge with my oldest daughter. We were listening to holiday music as we boiled the sugar, butter and evaporated milk. As we poured the fudge into the pan, Charlie Brown’s Christmas began playing. Emily loved everything Peanuts! The timing of the song struck me. Perhaps it meant she was in the kitchen with us in spirit.
But the next morning when I went to go take the fudge out of the fridge, it was a gooey mess. That ruined fudge was a metaphor for my life. Nothing was turning out the way it used to, let alone Christmas. And it will never be the way it was. I wrapped myself up in the quilt a friend made for me out of all of Emily’s Christmas clothing and blankets and listened to “Birdsong” by Kina Grannis. And then “I cried I cried I cried until I thought that I could die.”
Grannis sings “All I can do is hold a home within me.” I am holding a home for Emily within my heart this Christmas. Emily’s Hope is that home and in true It’s a Wonderful Life fashion, I was granted a small Christmas Eve miracle. While the longing for my daughter will never cease. Moving forward with my life and our cause is making a difference in the lives of others. I woke up to a text from my friend, Rebecca, who started the Oxford Sober Living Houses in Sioux Falls. She sent me photos of the children living at the Emily’s Hope Oxford House. Their mothers are in recovery and this is their shot at a better life. Thanks to all the work that has gone into Emily’s Hope, we were able to purchase art supplies, books on dealing with a parent with addiction, a wagon and TV for the home. The moms are also getting gift cards to Hy-Vee to purchase food for their families.
All of those gifts were wrapped under the tree and the photos show how much the children delighted in opening them. I felt my spirit being lifted out of its sorrow for a moment. I know grief and longing will return. But for now, I will take this Christmas miracle with an open heart. Emily would love seeing these sweet little faces and the excitement in their eyes. Her spirit lives on through their joy this holiday season.
Faith, Hope & Courage