Traditions. The things we do every year as families. Joys, thrills and tears... But, when holidays automatically usher in an extra resurgence of grief alongside our pumpkin or peppermint lattes, living with loss can make us want to scream and smile simultaneously.
Yeah, I'm living it now. And I'm calling out this strange time for the new tradition it's yielded my family, the new tradition that now restarts every holiday season. (We're on year two here.)
This new tradition? Weeping with balloons. To honor loss.
My own family’s first hand experience with the passing of a closely loved one happened so much sooner than I wanted it to — when my girls were 5 and newly 7 — right before the holidays. My mom. Their grandma. Our most beloved and admired leader. Born on the same day she ended up leaving this life — an unconventional birthday gift she actually wished for in her final days. To say that all of us were 'close' feels insulting and trite. We. Were. CLOSE.
Before we get deep, heed this disclaimer: I fully believe that no two deaths are alike — death of an aged person cannot be compared with death of a young person (a child losing his/her grandparent is not the same as losing his/her parent or a sibling). I am not a licensed anything — not a therapist, counselor, educator (although my sister has a master's degree in early childhood education, and she is someone I continue to pull wisdom from). All families, individuals and various ages deal with loss differently — there is no magic method to snap any of us back to living life as we knew it before grief.
At some point, all of us parents must tackle the delicate topic of loss with our children (as none of us get out of here alive). I share my own perspective about 'our new family tradition' here with sincere hope it might provide an idea, some hope, a bit of strength to someone who might be facing a tough situation of loss this season. Like it or not, I've learned that loss is now permanently woven into my family's holiday experience... and it's unexpectedly enhancing how we live.
OK, back story: When we first learned how serious everything turned with my mom in fall 2017, I decided to act swiftly and explain to my daughters what the heck was happening in the name of honest and fearless parenting. Everything happened fast. I wanted to do it RIGHT, as I imagined the experience would create an imprint memory that could likely shape how my girls view life, deal with loss and continue to live as they grow up.
Here’s the gist of what I said to my girls the first time I broached the topic, sitting on the floor in their bedroom: “Girls, Grandma is very, very sick. It’s not the kind of sick that we get — it’s not like a cold. She’s taken all the medicine she can take and it’s just not working like we hoped it would. I need to tell you that she might be going to heaven very soon…” I remember how big my girls’ eyes got. They were instantly shocked and distraught. “But we don’t want her to go to heaven now!” I nodded and told them that I didn’t want that either. We talked about our faith, how bad things sometimes happen, how the rest of us are all safe, how God always holds our hands through the worst times. I was matter-of-fact (no severe tears from me during this particular first conversation) but was very obviously devastated. I gave them hugs — they were so little. They hugged me back. We continued school and activity schedules as normal (thanks to my husband and local family) while I traveled back and forth throughout the coming weeks. I emailed their teachers as an FYI — just in case either of them started behaving outside of their norm. My girls knew age-appropriate basics of what was happening, why I had to be away from home so much during that time — that I was helping my mommy (and, family) through something very difficult.
My girls saw her once during this terrible time — just before she passed. She looked good, was inexplicably alert, asked them about school. They smiled and chit-chatted by her bed, but I could tell they were a little nervous. My sister took my girls to spend the night at her house that night.
My mom lost her battle the next morning. We told the kids a few hours later.
We sat them all down on the floor and my sister said: “This morning, Grandma went to heaven.” Silence. They all looked at each other. I think one of them started crying. Another one started smiling uncomfortably (which is totally normal for a little kid to do when he/she doesn’t know what to do). I remember hugging. I remember tears. I remember feeling like we did it right.
In the next few days, we started preparing them for the funeral [closed casket]. We bought all four granddaughters matching dresses to wear — in the spirit of Grandma’s ongoing tradition of buying them all matching outfits every time we'd get together. We walked into church as one big family. We listened to our priest. We wept with tissues in our hands. We projected strength but were crumbling insides. We greeted family and friends at the cemetery. We spoke at the luncheon — kids included (each granddaughter wrote a few memories about Grandma and read their thoughts out loud in front of about 350 attendees). Our girls watched their mommies [hopefully gracefully?] handle the most unexpected and devastating experience of our lives. Hopefully they noticed, hopefully they will remember.
Death is a part of life. Not coping was not an option — still isn't. It’s OK to cry and feel sad, and in our family, it is imperative to create and continue traditions to keep going and honor this tragic time in our life. Somehow, we are etching new and unexpected traditions that continue to heal us, comfort us, bond us and challenge us to forge forward with greater appreciation for each day and moments together.
Our most treasured new tradition kicks off every November (on her birthday and death day) and continues to happen throughout the year on holidays and celebrations when we long for her to be with us:
WE FLY. (As in, in the sky.)
My daughters and I (and my nieces and sister) send balloons high into the sky — to wish our Mom/Grandma a happy birthday, to send holiday greetings, to make ourselves feel connected and better. We look to the clear blue open above and are humbled by our angel watching over us. We smile and weep and then continue with our day, knowing that we sent extra, colorful love UP to HER. Our. New. Tradition.
Might seem silly to you, but it's working for us.
A few more things I continue to do with my daughters, in the name of tradition, to help us cope all year long?
Talk. We consistently chat about our memories with her — our Disneyland trips, our shopping trips, our beach days, that Hawaii vacation, pancake breakfasts in her kitchen, matching outfits, sleeping bags and/or pajamas she’d surprise everyone with every time we’d get together. And sometimes we talk to her, out loud, in the sweetest way little voices can.
Cry. Yes, I cry in front of my kids when it is warranted — to show them I am human and that it’s OK to let emotion out and then get yourself together to continue living life.
Visit. Yes, we visit her final resting place from time to time. We grace it with flowers. We say a prayer. We spend a few minutes with her memory – there, in her new space.
Pray. We light our candles in church and ask God to take care of her ‘up there,’ we say our prayers at night to thank God that she was our Grandma/Mom.
Read. We get cozy and flip through My Yellow Balloon, a most treasured gift from a family friend. (My favorite book for small kids and loss. Yes, I weep every time.)
Look. I keep pictures out of her to remind all of us that, even though she won’t be visiting us anymore, she is still here with us — through what we do and how we live.
Cook. Each holiday and/or life event is accompanied with its own recipe and protocol that is reminiscent of her style and flair for hosting gatherings — traditional recipes for Armenian yalanchi (regardless if it turns out as expected), creative table settings and desserts for special occasions.
Because (spoiler!) traditions don't need to be big — for holiday or any other non-special day of the year.
Learning to cope with loss, alongside my children, has been a most twisted gift I wish none of us ever had to give. Yet, it is a gift that is solely our responsibility to deliver, in the name of raising our children to be compassionately-connected, realistically-resilient and absolutely-equipped for anything life might deliver to them. Because if I were to stop time, stop joy, stop traditions and stop living in a way that would cheat my daughters out of love and appreciation for all of life’s trials and triumphs…. what a real, deep loss that would be.
Happy Birthday, Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas, Mom.