On grief and Jewishness during the holiday season

I’m not going to lie – this Christmas season was hellish for me.  For one, I obviously don’t celebrate the holiday and when it’s shoved down my throat everywhere, I get irritated. Anyone who says there’s a “war on Christmas” and that people don’t say “Merry Christmas”  anymore has never been a Jew in December. I used to respond with, “Thanks, I don’t celebrate it,” but now I just smile, nod, and walk away. It’s not my holiday, it’s not something I believe in, but I know people are just trying to be kind and spread holiday cheer so I move on. It’s not a battle I feel like fighting. 

But mostly, this season was horrendous because I used to celebrate Christmas and so many of my childhood memories are wrapped up in the holiday. Now, when I think about those memories, I think of my father and my younger brother and the spike of pain that stabs me through the heart is almost unbearable. At every turn, I’m reminded of loss this time of year. It makes for dark times during a dark period on the calendar (at least in the Pacific Northwest!)

I’ve come to terms with Dad’s death. He died nearly 2.5 years ago now and it was the “natural order” of things. He was in poor health, he didn’t take good care of himself, and he had a stroke from which he couldn’t recover. I’ve accepted that… and I miss him like crazy, but I’m at peace with the loss of him.

My brother’s death, however, is a different story. He died tragically at 34 years old 16.5 months ago. We don’t know all the facts surrounding his death. I didn’t get to say goodbye. His life was full of tragedy and lost opportunity. But he was my younger brother.

There are a million reasons why I haven’t come to terms with losing him. Last year, his death was very fresh – only 4.5 months had passed – and I was still very numb. This year is a different experience. I’m raw. There’s a hole in my soul that only my little brother can fill.

We grew up, for a five-year period, anyway, in a jewelry store that my parents owned. Every weekend, every school break, all summer – we were at the jewelry store. My mom only played old Christmas music (Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, etc.) in the store during the holiday season, so my formative years – age 7 to 14 – were influenced by that music. Now, even hearing any one of those songs brings me to tears because of the memories associated with that song and my brother. Some of my very best memories are of him at Christmastime. We were also huge viewers of Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story. Those two movies were very much part of our family traditions and I continued the traditions of watching those even after we left Christmas behind, but I skipped those this year, too. Ralphie Parker and Clark Griswold only contribute to my pain. 

So this holiday season? Absolute hell. Unbearable, bring-me-to-my-knees pain. I need it to end. I’m so glad Christmas has passed. I want to get back to the normal times, when the pain is more manageable and I’m able to compartmentalize it better. And when people keep their assumptions about who I am and what I celebrate/believe to themselves. 

Next year will be different. I’m planning ahead. I’m stocking my pantry, freezer, and household goods shelf in a way to ensure I don’t have to go to the store during December. I’m avoiding crowds. I’m not even shopping online so that I don’t have to go to the post office to pick up packages (we don’t even bother with home deliveries due to porch pirates). Starting the day after Thanksgiving next year, I’m moving into hermit mode until December 26th. And someday, B’ezrat Hashem, I’m spending December in Israel.

Hanukkah started the evening of December 22nd this year. As I light my Hanukkah candles every night, I’m trying to use that light to force away the darkness that has a tight fist around my soul. As each night gets brighter as more candles are lit, I’m feeling the horrible hold of misery start to lessen. Hopefully, on the 8th night when the flames are all burning brightly, I will be able to let the pain go and move forward. 

4th night of Hanukkah 2019 (December 25).

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