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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

I Want You to Say Their Name, Even if it Makes Me Cry

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During a recent conversation with a friend I shared a fond memory of her teenage son who passed away several months ago. There was a catch in her throat as she responded, and for a moment I regretted my words and wondered if I had said the wrong thing.

Later, during a quiet moment, I had the opportunity to ask her about it. I felt comfortable doing so because she had been open about her journey so far. She was gracious enough to give me the space to ask some personal and even painful questions. The truth is, though, that after you lose a child there isn’t much that is not painful. She told me that it was okay that I mentioned her son, and even okay that it made her cry. Actually, she continued, it was good that I said his name and it always makes her happy to know that he is remembered.

She told me that when people say his name she knows that he is remembered, and she feels like it honors his life and his memory. That is comforting to her, even if she might cry. It still isn’t easy to hear his name spoken sometimes, but she never wants to stop hearing it.

I personally have never experienced the loss of a child. Friends of mine have, and I cannot even begin to fathom the depth of their pain. I can, however, listen to them as they share their thoughts and experiences. I can also be there for them when they don’t feel like talking, even if it is by giving them space and letting them know that I am nearby and available should they ever need me.

Two of my friends in particular have been gracious enough share some of their journey with us. I continue to grieve with them for their losses as I stand in awe and appreciation of their strength and courage, honesty and vulnerability.  The rest of these words will be written from their perspective. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Continue reading

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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Supporting Someone Who Is Dying: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

The Morrissett family recently lost one of our own. She was brave and strong and kind and had successfully battled cancer for many years. Eventually her body became weary, and we all realized it was time to let her go. It was a sad time for all of us.

It is never easy to watch someone you care about struggle with illness. It is even more difficult when you know that they have begun the transition from this life to the next. Some people instinctively seem to have the ability to somehow say and do the right thing. I watched how my co-workers rallied around our friend by being physically present for her, circling her in prayer at her bedside, and supporting her needs. I was inspired by their love and compassion.

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I also came to realize I was struggling with the feeling that didn’t really know what to do. I found myself worried about somehow saying or doing the wrong thing. It occurred to me that others may feel the same way in similar situations, so I reached out for advice. This is a compilation of the responses I received, in which individuals who have been there share suggestions about how to support someone who is dying. This is by no means an exhaustive list, since the process is complicated and each situation is unique. As long as your actions are driven by love and concern it’s a place to start.

Be present. Sometimes all that is needed is the comfort of companionship, even in silence. “Don’t feel the need to fill the space with words. Your non-anxious presence will be enough.” No one wants to be alone, and being surrounded by those who care may be the best comfort as someone nears the end of their life.

Be yourself. “Talk to them like you would normally talk to them. I notice lots of people will completely change their mannerisms to a more solemn way of expression and I doubt people appreciate that.”

Be honest, and let them be honest. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know what to do, and stress that it’s not because THEY make you uncomfortable but because you want to make sure you support them in the best way you can. “Tell them that you care for them and are a little uncertain about how to be what they need, but you love them so you will do your absolute best to listen and respect their lead. I find giving permission to people to let me know what they do or don’t want and promising that my feelings will not be hurt often let’s people feel more comfortable in being open about their needs. Sometimes just naming the feelings and being open to being uncomfortable is good.”

If they want to talk about something hard, let them. Allow them to feel what they need to feel and say what they need to say, even if their strong emotions make you uncomfortable. They may be angry, sad, confused, frightened, or simply empty. Their feelings are valid and need to be expressed and respected.

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It is Okay to Not Be Okay: Overcoming the Stigma of “Negative” Emotions

She seemed so brave at the funeral, she didn’t cry at all.”

“They died six months ago… don’t you think it’s time you moved on and didn’t talk about it so much?”

“Focus on the positive and be strong! The rest of your family needs you! At least you still have them!”

“Don’t bring that up when you see them… it might make them sad. I want to protect them so they don’t fall apart.”

“Smile! It will get better.”

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Many of us who have experienced loss or the death of a loved one have heard similar comments. When bereavement first occurs other people flock to our side with words of support. The phone rings more often than it normally does. Friends hold our hands while we weep. They patiently listen to us talk about our loved one.

As time passes, however, we may find that people are increasingly less patient and don’t want to listen to our stories anymore. They seem uncomfortable when we cry. The phone may ring even less than it did before that moment… when everything changed. That moment when it felt like the world stopped spinning, at least for us.

Eventually we realize the world has continued moving on, while it feels like we are standing still. We feel alone in our grief.

Why do people pull away from those who are going through a period of mourning? There could be any number of reasons. Maybe they don’t know what to say. Maybe they are busy and caught up in their own lives. It might be that the death of our loved one reminds them of the stark reality of death and loss. Or maybe our tears frighten them, because they don’t know how to fix it.

We live in an Instagram-ready world. Advertisements and the media are constantly inundating us with exhortations to look our best, be the best, focus on the positive. Anything to keep up the facade. Society also pushes us to “fast fixes” with promises of “Just one pill,” or “Success overnight!”

As a result there seems to be little acceptance for anything other than “perfect.” All those messy emotions? Stuff them down inside and keep your head up. Life goes on, right?

We are conditioned from an early age that “sad is bad.” We hear other people say things like “Cheer up!” “Don’t let them see you cry,” or, “It’s not that bad!” They claim it is because they want to help and protect us, and that may be true.

It is also true that seeing people upset makes others uncomfortable, and humans don’t like to feel uncomfortable. We want comfort. Perfection. Quick fixes. We don’t want painful or sad or messy.

When other people see us grieving they often begin to think of not only our discomfort, but also their own. Then they do whatever they think they can to make that discomfort stop. They want to “fix” it. This results in insensitive remarks that they think are said with the best of intentions. They think that it is their job to make it better. However, they often don’t realize that their desire to make it better may be because of their own uncomfortable feelings. It’s selfish, and they have no idea they’re doing it.

Here’s the reality: It is okay to NOT be okay.

Anger, sadness, bitterness, pain, grief~ these are not actually BAD emotions even though they may make us feel bad. They are an important part of the human experience with all its highs and lows.The full spectrum of life needs to be embraced in order to really live it. Birth and death. Love and loss. Joy and suffering. They are all a part of what makes our time on this earth so meaningful. To cut ourselves off from any one of these things means to deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the fullness of life and explore what it truly means to be human.

Why is it so often considered “brave” to put on a face of calm stoicism in the midst of our trials? Isn’t it equally brave to allow ourselves to weep and wail and gnash our teeth at the depth of our pain and at the unfairness of it all?

Grief comes in many forms. We may grieve the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of our health, or the reality that something we dreamed about will never come true. No matter what the source of that grief is, when something hurts we should allow ourselves, and others, the chance to experience and work through that grief. Hiding from it or burying it just causes more problems in the long run.

I recently watched a powerful video in which chaplain & storyteller Kate Braestrup shared thoughts on, “What a five-year-old taught me about grieving.” In the video she talks about the death of her husband and describes the way she was treated by people who wanted to “manage” her. They seemed to think that if she was allowed to do what she felt she needed to do to care for her husband she would fall apart. When they finally left her alone with her husband’s body and let her dress him in his uniform it was a sacred experience. Even though it was painful, it was also beautiful and healing.

She then went on to talk about 5-year-old Nina, whose 4-year-old best friend and cousin had died. Nina insisted that she wanted to see Andy, and her parents were concerned, saying, “We want to protect her.” Finally, after much worry, they decided to allow young Nina to spend time with her cousin’s body and pay her respects.

The scene that transpired was sacred and beautiful and healing. Nina got what she needed and she was able to say goodbye. I encourage you to watch the video for yourself to hear the whole story.

Then came a realization after Nina’s tender goodbye:

You can trust a human being with grief.

Nina knew what she needed. People know what they need. So ask them. Listen to them. Then give them the freedom to express themselves and heal and mourn in their own way and in their own time.

It is only natural to try and protect those we love. I think if we were honest with ourselves, however, we would realize that we also try to protect them from some things because it would actually be too hard for US.

Grief is messy. It’s raw. Unfiltered. Honest. And that makes us uncomfortable. But we don’t have to be afraid of it or of any other emotion. We allow ourselves to feel them and learn from them. We can grow stronger because of them.

We grieve because we love, and love is powerful. Or, as Kate Braestrup so eloquently stated at the end of her video:

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning; for grief is just Love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, Love is up to the challenge.”

Love is up to the challenge.

 

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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
Serving the Richmond area since 1870

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