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Ghosts of Christmas Past

The holidays have passed, a new year has begun and yet I still find myself haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past. Every year as I get older I become increasingly aware of the passing of time and notice how things have changed, but for some reason this year was especially difficult.

I have experienced this feeling before. Grief. Emptiness. Longing for someone or something that wasn’t there. Wondering where the magic was hiding in the midst of all the supposed “sparkle” of the season. The first time was when I was about 5 years old and my parents had just separated. I remember looking around at all the presents, being surrounded by most of my loved ones, and yet feeling nothing. My father was not with us, and even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it I was missing him. I even asked my mother why I wasn’t happy, unable to understand that what I was partially missing was the way my family, and Christmas, used to be. At a very young age I was already experiencing grief.

My children experienced those pangs in a way after they learned that Santa Claus was a myth. Each of them seemed a bit forlorn during their first Christmas without the wonder of believing. They even mentioned that things felt different. To them it was as if they had lost a friend, or someone they loved had died. Not only that, change can be difficult for children and growing up is not always fun. So I tried my best to help them focus on what we did have rather than what was different. We found new ways to celebrate and find joy. Being surrounded by family that loves you and hearing their laughter can be magical, too. It doesn’t have to fly in on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. We are people of faith, so we focused even more on the true meaning of the season.

Change has come for me as well. Many family and friends who were once a central part of my life are central no longer. I grieve for the close relationships I once had with those who have moved far away. I still feel the pangs of hurt over some people who have made a deliberate decision to exclude me from their life. Most of all I desperately miss the loved ones who have passed away. Most years I have coped pretty well and found a balance between allowing myself space to grieve while also being happy. This year, however, the sad feelings caught me by surprise.

It happened while I was busy wrapping gifts and had placed an ornament in a small bag without checking the tag. My husband eventually brought the bag back to me, chuckling, and asked me if I had seen what it said: “To Mimi, Love Mark, Jenny, & Zachary.” He seemed to think the tag was cute, so he was shocked when I burst into tears. Loud, gulping sobs came out of my mouth in between ragged breaths. It was several minutes before I could even speak. I finally responded simply, “We need a different bag.” Then I cried some more, cradling the precious, shiny little gift bag.

That bag had been used during the last Christmas before everything changed for my extended family. I had bought a gift for my grandmother and she had opened it at my house and apparently left the empty bag. I was a new mother that year and yet somehow we had held a huge family gathering at my home. We were surrounded by love and laughter and it was wonderful, despite the fact that it was the first Christmas since my grandfather had died. Somehow that loss brought us closer together, and we clung more tightly to each other that year in the wake of the loss of our patriarch. Not long after that my grandmother died and events occurred that changed many of our relationships. I was left to grieve for not only my grandmother who had passed away, but also for family whom I now had to love from a distance.Family can be complicated sometimes, as can grief.
That grief can become even more difficult to bear when you lose the support of people who used to be an important part of your life.

In the years since, as I continue to age and my circumstances change, I often find myself longing for how things used to be. I also continue to miss those people who, for one reason or another, are gone. I would give anything for one more extended-family Christmas in my grandparents’ den, sitting by their tinsel-adorned tree and listening to “The Little Drummer Boy” on the record player. I never felt safer than when I was in that room. I want to talk to my grandmother and grandfather again, hear their voices tell the stories from when they were young, feel the warmth of their hugs. I want them to know my children.  Some years I find myself alone on the couch in the dark, save for the lights of our Christmas tree, and I cry just as bitterly as I did the year they died. Over ten years have passed and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it has gotten any easier. In many ways it feels like it has become more difficult. I miss it all so much that at times it feels like a physical pain. The feelings can be triggered without warning and by unexpected things, and the little gift bag was proof of that.

I have discovered that when those feelings come it is best not to fight it. I let the feelings and the tears flow, and it provides a bit of a release.  The tricky part is that I don’t dwell too long on the regret. If I spend too much time thinking about what I miss and who is gone I might be blinded from looking at the blessings right in front of me. I have a house full of people I love who love me back, and I still have a close extended family. At Christmas we take time to honor those we have lost and share stories, and we hold them close in our hearts.

Things change. Just because our lives aren’t the same as they used to be doesn’t mean they aren’t good, they’re just different. And yes, sometimes it can be really hard and incredibly sad. So sometimes I try instead to focus on gratitude and reach out to those I care about. That’s when I start to realize that I am truly blessed indeed and have many reasons to celebrate. That the ghosts of Christmas past and the people I have lost don’t have to haunt me. Instead they can be happy memories to decorate the halls of my heart and keep me in joyful company for years to come.

God bless us, everyone. 

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Jennifer Roberts Bittner
Certified Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist for 

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service,                                            Serving families in the greater Richmond area since 1870

6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
(804) 275-7828

Christmas Without You

“I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue just thinking about you.

Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree, won’t be the same dear if you’re not here with me.

And when those blue snowflakes start fallin’, that’s when those blue memories start callin’.

You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.”                (Lyrics to “Blue Christmas”, sung by Elvis Presley)

The holidays can be hard after the loss of someone close. Nothing feels the same. The lights have lost their twinkle, the night seems even more dark and cold. So what can someone do if they find ourselves in that situation? What are some ways to cope or get through the extra emotion of the holiday season? Here are some insights from a few individuals who have experienced the death of a loved one and were gracious enough to share their thoughts about grief and the holidays.

More than one person shared that they find it comforting to engage in old traditions. It brings back warm memories of time spent together. Others find new ways to spend the holidays. However, if they decide “do” the holidays there is no one right way to cope with the change in the season. What matters most is finding a way to honor lost loved ones in a way that works for those involved, while also making the holidays special.

E.W. wrote: “The first Christmas after my father passed I couldn’t stand the idea of his chair in the family room being empty. I offered to bring my mom a small Christmas tree to put up next to his chair. We called it the ‘dad tree’ and decorated it with things that reminded us of him – lots of plaid and ornaments we had bought for him over the years. It helped a lot and made that empty chair not seem so empty. So that it was low stress as possible for my mom we took care of everything including watering it, decorating it, and taking it down at the end of Christmas.”

Others may choose not to celebrate at all. Erin, a mother who experienced the loss of her son Kreed, shared that one of the things she needed from others was “understanding.” Not only understanding as to why they would not want to celebrate the holidays after such a great loss, but also understanding of the fact that two years later they are still sad. As she wrote, “We still grieve as if it happened yesterday.”

If they do decide to celebrate, but in different or scaled-back fashion, she also hopes that others will respect that, because “We are celebrating in our way and a way we want to.”

However, if someone chooses to not participate in the holidays that does not mean you should ignore them or stop inviting them to events. They may choose to come, but even just receiving the invitation can be comforting. It’s nice to know you are not forgotten. So by all means still invite those who are grieving, let them know you care, and let them decide whether or not they want to attend. Also, it helps if you are understanding if your potential guests say yes but then cancel at the last minute. Sometimes they really do want to come but then at the last minute it can become too hard.

Kimberly’s family lost two beloved members within six months. The holidays were hard that year, but they made it a priority to gather their family together. They prayed, spent time with each other, and talked about their loved ones. She wrote, “My mom really wanted everyone together. It was hard on her but she was glad we did it, and so was everyone else. I guess the tip is to take people where they are at and respect their wishes.”

Remembering those who have passed is so important. It can help a grieving person to know that their loved one is remembered by others. Erin wrote that she hopes others will, “remember our boy at these times. It was his favorite time of year. Talking about him helps us, not hurts us. By not saying his name or his memories, it’s like he was erased. We love talking about him and remembering his antics this time of year.”

Another individual, Donna, wrote that her uncle died from Leukemia on Christmas Day at the young age of 36. He was her mother’s only brother among 5 siblings. She observed, “Christmas was hard for my mom and her family after that. But every year, my mom pulled it together to give her own 5 kids a happy holiday. And we never stopped talking about my uncle, and all the wonderful memories we have of him. We lost him in 1973, and he is still a big part of our family history because we keep the memory of this wonderful, loving man alive. My advice would be, don’t ever stop remembering the ones we lose, and treat each memory as a gift, for which we can always be grateful.”

Each memory truly is a gift. While all our families are different, with different situations, what’s similar is the love. Honoring and remembering that love is crucial, and helps us find strength and comfort. This holiday season may you be able to hold tight to your memories, so that they may they fill your heart and your days with light.

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Jennifer Roberts Bittner
Certified Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
(804) 275-7828

Love Lives On

During spring and the celebration of Easter we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, life over death, and renewal and resurrection over destruction and decay. For those who are struggling with sadness due to the illness or death of a loved one the promises of spring can feel very far away. After a long, cold and dark winter many of us are in desperate need of hope.

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So what do we do when we find ourselves find ourselves in a season of sadness? Many years ago I asked myself the same question after losing my grandmother. Her health had been deteriorating for some time, and the last few years were full of what felt like a thousand small goodbyes as I watched her disappear bit by bit. I thought I had ample time to process the loss, yet I was still unprepared for the flood of grief that enveloped me a few days after her death. I had just gotten home so I parked my car in the driveway and sat there alone, immobilized by my grief, freely letting the tears fall.

Then I looked up and looked around. Peeking through the ground were the first small shoots of spring. The phlox that had taken up only a small area when first planted many years ago had spread into a large, lush blanket of purple. Birds were chirping and gathering materials to build their nests. Squirrels scampered through the yard. The sun shone through the clouds and the signs of life were all around me.

This scene, that I had viewed so many times before, suddenly took on new meaning. As I began to reflect upon it my spirit was renewed.

There is something inspiring about seeing new life emerge out of the earth every spring. It is the fulfillment of a promise that even though a seed falls into the dark ground and waits, it will eventually emerge and grow and stretch its face towards the sun.

It is also deeply satisfying when it is life that you placed into the soil with your own hands. It still amazes me that for many types of plants and flowers if I put in the initial effort and then if I am patient, it comes back. Even though every winter the ground seems bare, it changes each spring. This gives me hope.

That day as I sat weeping in front of my home it also occurred to me that many of the plants and flowers in my garden came from the gardens of people I loved. It was a part of something that they tended and nurtured at their own home, and then they shared that care with me. Plants were cultivated so well that they multiplied, creating an ABUNDANCE of beauty and life, and there was more than enough to share. Year after year their work produces new life and growth, and it still multiplies. I have divided many of the lilies and hosta and bulbs and given them to friends, who have then shared them with their friends. Countless home are now made more beautiful because someone gently placed a small plant into the ground many years ago, and helped it grow. And ever year I still look at my garden and smile and think of them and the love they shared.

Do you see what I am trying to tell you? LOVE multiplies. Beauty grows. Good deeds multiply and have a positive effect on other people, who then want to help other people. They cycle continues on and on and on.

Looking at my garden that day made me realize that our efforts to make this world a better place will can continue to bloom and grow and add beauty to this world long after we are gone. I reminded myself that that though the body of my loved one had stilled, what they contributed to this world will remain. The lessons she taught me and the kindness she showed to others will continue to bear fruit. She also will live on in me. She still influences me every day.

Dawn breaks over the dark horizon. Spring melts the winter snow. Green tendrils emerge from the ground. Life wins, beauty, kindness and memories continue. Love lives on. And so I find hope.

 

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Jennifer Roberts Bittner

Certified Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
(804) 275-7828

 

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What if I don’t feel like being “Merry”?

 

The holidays are typically a time of family. A time of gathering. A time to bring hearts and mind home. For those of us who have experienced a loss, however, things are different. WE are different and it helps to acknowledge that truth, difficult as it may seem. The carols ring hollow, the lights too bright, and the gatherings feel too sad when there is an empty place in the circle of family.

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Each journey of grief is unique. It is singular to you. You may feel overwhelmed by emotion, anger or sadness. You may feel debilitated by loss. You may feel empty. You may just want to tuck your sadness inside. Your heart has been broken and you are seeking for ways to put it back together. But how does one do that?

Not only that, how do we get through a season of celebrating and merriment when we feel anything BUT “merry”? How do we even begin to approach the holidays now that someone so important, so central to our lives, is gone?

We can still find comfort in some of our regular traditions, despite the fact that they will feel different this year. We can bask in the warm glow of the memories invoked by those traditions. We can cherish those moments from years past.

It can also be healing to find NEW traditions, new ways to celebrate the holidays, and have new experiences. Change it up a bit, make new memories. You are not the same, so why should everything about the holidays be the same, too? That way you can find moments of happiness and enjoyment without the pang of loss, and without remembering how different that specific activity or situation used to be.

We could choose to spend time with others who may have experienced a similar loss, and sit in a room full of people who understand. You could attend a special holiday service of remembrance, or even a support group. It is incredibly healing to sit in a room filled with compassion, united in shared experience.

Community service can also be a way to have a positive influence on the lives of others and keep us focused on the meaning of the season. Helping others keeps us busy, reminds us (and them) that we are not alone, and makes the world a better place.

We can also find comfort, solace, and meaning in rituals and in honoring the life of the loved one who has passed on. It doesn’t matter whether it was a recent loss or years have passed, there are still positive effects. It may seem that acknowledging the difficult feelings would make us feel worse, and that if we take the stopper out of the bottle where our feelings are safely stored they will all come flowing out and we won’t be able to control it. Wouldn’t it just remind us of what used to be and those who are no longer with us? Studies have proven otherwise.

It seems that individuals who have experienced a loss and participated in such rituals and talked about them said that they actually felt LESS sad once the ritual was over. They also found that rituals, which are deliberate and controlled gestures, help people overcome grief by counteracting the turbulence and chaotic feelings that follows loss.

Rituals can be of benefit no matter how much time has passed since the death of a loved one, since there is no timetable for grief. Rituals and acknowledging even our painful and difficult feelings can help us take back some control over our emotions so that they don’t overwhelm us. Rituals can help us feel empowered to face the situations we find ourselves in, and in the midst of the overwhelming hustle and bustle that can occur during the holiday season that control is something that can help us feel more secure.

However we choose to do so, we can find meaning and healing through pausing to remember our departed loved ones. We could share a memory, speak their names, or help someone in their honor. We can reflect in thankfulness for the role they played in our lives, and acknowledge the difficult truth that the holidays without them will be different this year. Everything is different, yes. But we are also different, we are better, because we had them, our precious loved one, in our lives. And that love needs to be recognized.

Our wish for all of you in this room this holiday season is that you may find what you need. May you find comfort in the stories that your loved ones leave behind. May you find peace in your heart; may you be surrounded with people in your life who bring you joy and a respite from loneliness. We also hope that you may, in your own unique way, find the faith and courage to put one foot in front of the other, to continue on your journey thorough this life. It is indeed a season of sorrow, but also a season filled with joy, memories, and hope. May you carry the spirit of the season in your heart, and may the memories of your loved one be fresh in your mind, for it is there that they will never be far from you.

We wish you all the peace and tranquility this season provides.

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Jennifer Roberts Bittner
Funeral Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
Serving the Richmond area since 1870

Resources:

In Grief, Try Personal Rituals: The psychology of rituals in overcoming loss, restoring broken order,The Atlantic, by EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH

“Holiday Service of Remembrance 2017,” by Glenda Stansbury, In-Sight Institute Resource Book