Christmas Redux

December 25. 1942. Bing Crosby is singing White Christmas on the radio. The world is at war and we’re losing. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just over a year ago. England is in imminent danger of being conquered and destroyed by the Nazis. It’s a perilous time.

I am five years old. My family is gathered in the big room at my Uncle Harry and Aunt Vera’s lovely home in Indianapolis. Everyone is there—except Daddy.  No one talks about it. We are opening presents from a pile under the big tree with multi-colored lights. Most of them are for us kids: me, my sister, Eloise, nine years old and my older cousins: Bill and Harry Junior. I am the youngest.

My father, John Francis Kerr, is not there because he died only four months ago. He was an Army doctor, but he wasn’t killed overseas in war. His shocking death had been from an unexpected, freak accident involving a train. I love him with all my heart. I miss him. I want him here.

I look around at the smiling faces and feel as if something is crushing me. The weight of the despair in the room falls on me. I believe I am the only one feeling sad. I have not developed the adult “skill” to cover up my emotions.

I open the present I am given and say thank you as I am trained to do. I feel terrible, but I don’t have a name for it—those names will come later: grief, devastation. I’m not sick. The scar on my stomach from the emergency appendectomy four months ago has healed, though it will remain visible for years. I cannot relate to the laughter and talk through the misery I feel. I know something is terribly wrong, but I don’t know what it is. I am not thinking about how Daddy took me to the hospital and then died five days later. I do not connect those traumatic events consciously in my young mind. I don’t have a clue how deep the scar on my psyche is. All I know is I feel bad—very, very bad and I miss Daddy very, very much. But no one else seems to because they aren’t saying it.

December 25, 1943. Bing Crosby is now singing the heart-wrenching “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams” for all the missing sons and husbands fighting this brutal war. The Allies are still losing an ever-widening, terrifying battle. The family is again at my uncle’s house. I am now six years old and overwhelmed by the same, mysterious and terrible feelings of a year ago. I do not know the cause any more than I did last Christmas. But now I judge myself because I cannot “cheer up” as my mother urges me to do so impatiently. Presents don’t make me feel better.

An inescapable depression at Christmas is becoming established. Every year, I begin to dread the Holidays. I feel like an alien—that I don’t belong in my world.. Like clockwork, I start getting the flu every year that I later call the Christmas Crud. No doubt it was my body’s attempt to bypass the Holly Jolly time. It took years and a lot of personal dredging to understand why I felt so bad come December. Now I no longer get the flu or become deeply depressed, but shadows and sadness still arise in a kind of Pavlovian response to what used to be called Xmas.

December 2017. I sit in a parking lot talking on the phone with a long-time friend who has seen me through those old feelings year after year when they resurfaced.  I feel compassion rather than judgment for my depression now.

I look out at the neon signs and Christmas lights twinkling in the early dark Florida sky. But what I see in my mind’s eye is that first Christmas after Daddy’s death. I can envision the Christmas tree over in the left corner of the room and all the people gathered in a circle.

In that long-gone room were my father’s three older siblings: Uncle Harry, Uncle Paul, and Aunt Louise. Daddy had been a surprise baby, born 11 years after Louise. He was the darling of the family, spoiled and adored. How painful his death must have been for them all. His mother and father, my Grandma and Grandpa Kerr never recovered from that blow to their hearts. Then there was my mother and my sister, whose lives, like mine, were ripped apart and changed forever. The entire room was filled with pain and grief.

As I sit in my car, my heart goes out to them in their attempt to cover up their own grief for the sake of us children—for making such a valiant effort to be in the Christmas spirit.

I talk with my friend as tears roll down my face. I am weeping for my family. I know now that as a child, I not only felt my own enormous grief, terror, and loss, but theirs as well—even though they tried so hard to cover it up with  smiles. What else could they have done, I wonder. How else could they have behaved?

Were they wrong? Were they just a part of the culture of the times? I don’t know what I would do as an adult in that situation. What does a family do now at the holidays when faced with a terrible loss that affects them all? What do you do?  I would love to hear.

13 thoughts on “Christmas Redux

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes it’s very difficult to reach that place of compassion, but the sadness is so different when not mixed with anger, when it’s just sadness. I feel deeply sad for the little girl who was supposed to pretend to be happy and, yes, for the adults who thought the very best thing was to give that little girl a “normal” Christmas at a painful time.
    My mother died on June 14, 1987, one day before my son’s 19th birthday. The entire family was gathered on his birthday for perhaps the only time ever. We got a private room in a local restaurant and made an attempt to give him a “Happy Birthday.” We sang, we had a cake, it was the saddest day ever, even sadder than the day she died because we were all trying to be cheerful for Brendan. He, however, was 19 so he wasn’t confused and was able to be a part of deciding that the birthday party idea had not worked.
    I think if I were in the situation that the adults in your family was in, with more years of experience than they had at the time I think I would do Christmas but I would acknowledge the painful time and give everyone permission to be sad but also to be happy.

    • Lovely and wise. I totally understand how people want to make someone “happy” on a so-called happy occasion, but that’s false, isn’t it? They can certainly offer a lot of love along with the acknowledgment. I find it interesting that at memorial services when grief is expected, there is often so much laughter and sharing. And, I think if the grief and losses can be acknowledged then the laughter and warmth and smiles can be more genuine.

  2. Katherine, this is such a moving and hot me hard….my mother died in March this year. This has made me think. But thank you for writing this. Interesting to hear how over time you’ve come to a place of some resolution and healing with all this emotion. I can’t begin to imagine how this Christmas is going to be. But hope your Christmas this year will have joy. Thinking of you. Alex xx

    • My heart goes out to you in your loss. Such a hard one. Perhaps you can find a way to acknowledge her in your Christmas celebrations. Sending a warm hug.

  3. Hi Katherine, thank you for sharing this. I have not experienced this kind of great loss yet, since my closest family members are all still alive. But I empathize with what you are experiencing. It sounds like your family is like mine in having a difficult time dealing with strong emotions. I do not know what the best way would be for adults to deal with something like this, but I imagine it would include talking to them about it in some way, rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet, since children do know what is going on. In your wisdom, you listened and are listening to yourself, and it sounds like you are doing the exact perfect thing: Being present with it and allowing yourself to experience what you’re feeling. Sending you lots of love.

  4. I love your heart. And the way you express it. I have no words of wisdom. We have had deaths in our family over the years, but none sudden or unexpected, for which I am truly thankful. We can acknowledge, miss and love those family members and still laugh and be sincerely happy and grateful. I think the untimely death of your father at such a young age is something most people would have great difficulty understanding and dealing with. That you can recall and process it now is a blessing. My therapist in NY used to tell me that I had to mother the hurt little girl in me myself. I have done that quite a bit. I think at some point we all have to be our own parent and help ourselves through the things that still bother, upset or confuse us. My mom was not one of those warm, fuzzy moms that you could tell everything to. She died five years ago, but I was mothering myself long before that. I actually spent a lot of time mothering her too. And now I am caring for my father in his declining years. It is a blessing for both of us and seems to be in the “normal” scheme of things. I know I will miss him when he is gone, but I also think that I will feel as though our relationship is complete and that all expressions of love have been voiced and felt. I am very lucky. Your post brought tears to eyes. I’m sending you a virtual hug. I hope this Christmas is truly happy for you.

    Love, Lois

  5. As always you open my heart, both with your writing and when we are together. What I have learned this year is that we can be united in our sadness and grief and I love you so much for doing that here.

  6. My heart goes out to you, Katherine, for losing your dad at such a young age. I have had losses but none nearly like this or others that I know. I have no words of wisdom. I just offer grace to anyone to feel the way they feel. I also know that grief comes up at any time, that anything can trigger it, that people don’t “get over it” but they learn to live with it. Blessings to you as you continue to live with it!

    Our church offers a Blue Christmas service, something that I never really heard of until recent years. In announcing it during worship this morning, our pastor said that it’s for anyone who wants to come, “whether a loss happened this year or 18 years ago” (and she gave other reasons). I don’t know where the 18 years came from, if she was thinking of something in particular or it was just a random number that came to her head. I just know that I’m glad the church openly acknowledges that it’s not all “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright.” Hearts can be raging or deeply wounded.

    So, I have no experience to say how I’ve dealt with it or would deal with it in your situation. Routines and traditions can be healing for some people. How could a 5-year-old know what would be helpful? Even if you knew how to name your feelings, would you know what you would’ve wanted? They, as adults or older children, probably didn’t know what they would’ve wanted either. They may have been numb and just going through the motions was the best they could do. I don’t know. We weren’t a family that talked about our feelings much, so we probably would’ve done much the same as yours.

    Blessings of peace.

    • I LOVE the idea of a Blue Christmas service….acknowledge the pain and then come together with love and laughter after. I think that’s the perfect way to celebrate….Who knows? Maybe Christmas Eve could be about whatever losses have occurred that year or, as your minister said, 18 years ago. God knows, I have had so many losses by this age, that it would take an evening to be with them. I am so happy that you stay in touch. Thank you for such a thoughtful and warm response, dear cousin!

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