The Holidays Without You

by Michelle Page-Alswager

On the day I find myself writing this I am 10 months into the loss of my son. Ten months, 14 days to be exact, but who is still counting? Oh yeah, all of us are still counting …

After Jesse died I wondered how I would ever get through another big milestone. Our first big holiday was Valentine’s Day, but it was so close to his death that it went by without a blink, I didn’t even notice it. The next was the Superbowl – well, not really a holiday but definitely a milestone date for Jesse as he was an avid Packer fan. No, not a holiday but hard because Jesse wanted the New Orleans Saints to win, so who could help but watch the Saints go to victory and missing Jesse just that much more because he wasn’t there to giggle and taunt?

Easter rolled around at about month 2 and we gathered the family together and I did my best to make it okay for the other kids, but found myself immersed in deep sadness.

Then came summer – again not a holiday, but a time with lots of memories of swimming in our backyard with all of Jesse’s friends and Jesse complaining about how freezing cold the water is.  We move into Fall and celebrate what would have been his 14th birthday. We chose to spend that day how we normally would with his closest friends and our family remembering him and laughing and celebrating the great person he is. Not was. Is. And somehow, his birthday is a fond memory, not as sad as the other milestones and as I write this I cannot explain why that is.

Halloween, Thanksgiving, baby steps to easing our way through holidays and milestones and realizing it was still difficult but there was just a slight edge taken off of the pain and I was thinking, “Maybe, maybe I can get through these with a breath or two more.”

As soon as Thanksgiving faded away my heart got really heavy. I found myself back in the same awful thoughts that I was feeling in month one and month two. Crying all the time, not finding joy in anything, thoughts of guilt, thoughts of anger at Jesse as to why he could leave me, leave us.

Walking through a store doing my Christmas shopping whether I liked it or not, I found myself walking through the ornament aisle. What started out as an okay day immediately turned to sadness and pain. I looked at the ornaments and felt the pain come full force as I thought, “My God, Jesse is not going to be here to decorate the tree. Do I still buy him an ornament? Do I hang his stocking?” And then memories of all the Christmas years of the past and enjoying taking the kids’ photos by the tree and the kids’ hours of enjoyment of the world’s dumbest train around the tree skirt. I ran out of the store as fast as possible without looking like a lunatic.

I notice how much more the spotlight is on his death, for me. I can’t focus at work and I’m starting to notice the pain in my kids manifest in ways I don’t expect. My 10-year-old starts to break down and cries easily at school. I find out that he had to read a book called Tuck Everlasting in which a character was named Jesse and it was about life and after-life. No WONDER he was upset without saying so. Just like me he was feeling his own personal pain through the seasons. I noticed Jesse’s young friends were suddenly grieving publicly on social media and reaching out to me. They too, were missing him at this time of year more than other holidays.

For Charlie the same rang true. Charlie and Mel’s daughter, Eilish died shortly before I wrote this chapter. She was 13 years old and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes about the same time as Jesse – within months of each other in fact. Charlie says he finds himself going over the phone calls he made to tell family and friends what happened. Why the phone calls over and over he doesn’t understand yet. As the holidays approach for him, he tells me he struggles to find something as normal as having bacon and eggs – to just carry on.

Right before Christmas while at the height of this “new” pain, we celebrated our 100 mile ride on our bicycles in Death Valley, California. Part of that ride was a tribute to both Jesse and Trent, both lost to this disease this year at such young ages. Trent’s parents had joined me in Death Valley with 300 other riders. It was decided by the staff or the organization to dedicate mile 23 to Jesse and Trent. A mile of silence would continue for the years to come for anyone lost to this disease. We pulled up to mile 23 with our whole local team together. We gathered, took pictures and remembered our boys. It was so hard to do, but it felt so good to be remembering them with people who truly loved us – and truly loved them. As any big event that celebrated my son’s life, I found myself grieving hard after the event wondering, “What will I do next? I have to keep busy to stay sane.”

Months later we gathered to watch a video of the weekend we spent in Death Valley. Each year we do this in celebration of all we accomplished. As much as I wanted to go to the party I was loathing it. I knew more than anything that I would be emotional and that knowing my friends, there would be an awesome and moving tribute to Jesse.

A great tribute was indeed in the slideshow and afterwards I wanted to escape the room. I was so overtaken by emotion that I just wanted out. I was sad that my grief had to flow into all of their lives; that they couldn’t just have their old fun celebration like normal, that my loss is now their loss. I went home later that evening and watched the video over and over, crying until the middle of the night. I couldn’t help it, I needed to grieve, selfishly, over my loss – mine.

Weeks later I received an email from the wonderful friend who had so painstakingly chosen the slideshow, the tribute and the amazing lyrics of the Dixie Chicks tune, “Godspeed Little Man” for it. He kindly had mentioned in his email that he wasn’t sure if I had liked it. I hadn’t reacted or said anything. It was that moment I figured out what was going on. In explaining my reaction to him I learned my own struggle.

It is this: the most rewarding and thoughtful gifts whether it be an item, a thought, a call, or a slideshow, these are the rewards that come with the most excruciating and heartfelt pain we can feel. The greater the reward and love, the greater the pain. I do not have advice to you – the person grieving or the person offering the wonderful gift – I only share with you that as hard as the gift is to receive, it is a gift worth receiving so please do not withhold it, just understand we may be so overcome with emotion that we must only walk away and let the pain flow.

Charlie felt much of the same emotion in small things like someone leaving a calendar in his mailbox that Eilish had started at school but was unable to finish. Thinking it was just too painful he put it aside, yet found himself knowing he would of course hang it. Because that gift you gave – the thought, the item, the call, whatever the gift – means everything, a small bit or memory that we cling to and need.

So even though I kept thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me? I feel like I did months ago, I thought I was doing better?” I realize I am doing better. I am realizing that this ebb and flow will continue for a long time to come. That a boy who looks like Jesse in a store could trigger a three hour cry-fest. That getting a holiday card from a well-meaning family showing smiling happy family members would be horrible with thoughts of “I’ll never want to take a family picture again because my family is no longer whole.” And I know it will pass. Christmas isn’t year round – thank GOD.

So how did I handle Christmas? And why did Christmas bother me so much? I realized Christmas was hard for my family because it was a time that gathered everyone no matter what. I realized it was the most painful because it was the last time our whole family had truly gotten together for a damn good time.

This year we decorated our tree with our kids and laughed and followed traditions – and we hung Jesse’s stocking as we always did – and will forever. And we still had to listen to who the hell took the bite out of the ornament that looks like a cookie but was made out of cinnamon and glue and felt it only natural to finally peg it on Jesse since he can’t defend himself – although I did look to signs in the room for dissatisfaction of that agreement with a light flicker or a screeching rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” on the CD player forced by his presence. It’s all we can do, is remember the good, smiles and giggles.

On to the next milestone. One step at a time and maybe kicking a few cats on the way.

Author’s Note: I wrote this story back in 2010. As I reflect on this now 2018 it still brings those emotions to the surface. I allude that I hoped one day it would pass – that feeling of never wanting to take a family picture ever again. I want to tell you that as I approach year 9 of my loss, while I will always have a huge hole in my heart where Jesse remains, we are taking a family picture when our newly combined family is together for the holidays. There is progress in our grief, moving forward, one breath at a time.