Grief Talk: “Merry” Christmas?

In a recent email, my mom wrote how this is a tough time of year to be without Dad (who passed away in April), and then she mentioned the first Christmas after my husband Bruce died and a photograph she remembered of our nine-month-old daughter, Carlene, sitting in the middle of wrapping paper.

Carlene was the emotional glue that kept us together that year, and often still does today.

I thought I’d share a piece that, as of the current draft, is included in the memoir I’ve written about Bruce and grief. Fingers crossed an agent will represent it next year!

May all of you who are grieving find peace in your memories. I’ll be back in January with another Grief Talk Tuesday. If there’s a grief-related topic you’d like addressed, or a website or book you’ve found helpful, leave a comment or send me an email:

December 1983 — It’s Christmas Eve. Carlene and I will soon go to my sister Emily’s Christmas program at church, and afterwards, to my parents’ house to open gifts. I dress Carlene in a lacy lavender dress, white tights, and a white sweater before setting her on the floor with a bottle half-filled with watered down apple juice. She crawls, bottle swinging from her mouth, over to the Christmas tree. She sits, grabs her bottle with both hands, and stares at the lights as she drinks. I want to capture the moment, but I have to be sneaky. Photos of Carlene in action are nearly impossible to take because whenever she sees a camera, she stops what she’s doing and poses with a wide, toothless grin and claps her hands. Quietly, without her suspecting, I take her picture.

A few weeks ago, Carlene started “talking.” When she sits in my lap, she taps my face with her hands and says, “Mum mum mum,” and I am both proud and petrified. When I try to get her to say, “da da,” she always looks confused.

“Who’s da da?” I imagine she asks.

“He’s the guy we’re both growing up without,” I tell her.

I put on Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age, a Christmas gift from Bruce in 1981. Listening to music is one ritual from our life that I continue. We listened to music every time we got ready to go out, when we ate dinner, or played games on a winter night. We listened to music in the car, and I know he listened to music in the tractor. Before I realize I’m doing it, I daydream about what might have happened in the moments before the train struck his tractor and I wonder if Bruce was listening to music and if so, what song was he singing.

I don’t blame music, though. Music is the only safe place I feel him. A song is ambiguous, subject only to the memory in my mind, unlike a photograph that is concrete in its detail, stark in its reminder of what is gone. Listening to a familiar song, I can feel us dancing or making love. Music also articulates things I seem unable to. Bonnie Tyler singing about falling in love and falling apart makes me feel less alone.

I often sing to Carlene. One of my favorites is a song my mother used to sing to me: “I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck…” I tickle Carlene’s belly and kiss her plump cheeks and she laughs and I usually laugh, too. Sometimes I start to cry, but she just thinks her mama is being silly.

I hope it’s always that way, that she never knows how hard everything is right now. 

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