“Happy birthday, Wolfie, and happy Hanukkah, everyone!” my dad says. My family is gathered in the kitchen to celebrate: It’s me, 17, Wolfie, now 11, Celia, 14, and our father, 41. Celia is wearing a blue dress that flounces below the waist. The “Hanukkah tree” I bought at Target—a little blue tinselly thing—is glistening in the light of the menorah.
I give my father a framed picture of us three kids and The Little Book of Mindfulness. We’re all smiling, and everything is normal until I catch my dad’s eyes move to the picture on the table by the mantle. Maybe I imagined it, but now I’m looking at it, too: In the photo, my mother is gazing sadly over her shoulder through the frame. I think about the last time I saw her before she died. I think about the last thing she heard me say. I think about how, in her last moments, she might have been thinking about how cold she was to me at the end of her life. Suddenly, everything is joyless, sterile, forced. After we rush through the rest of the gifts, family time is over, and we all go to our rooms after some stiff words of thanks.
In my room, I quietly fold my new clothes and put them away, feeling numb, and wishing I were anywhere but home. Even though she never lived in this house with us, this place, and time of year, reminds me of her more than I can bear. I think back to Hanukkah 2011—the last one we had as a whole family. I’m going through my frumpy ’80s phase, and my dress is floor-length with shoulder pads. I still have blond hair, and my old fashion blog is still my main hobby. I haven’t given up yet. We’re sitting on the two identical white couches that we’d still have in the new house three years later. My mom’s hair is dirty blond and she is smiling so her deep-set eyes crinkle at the corners. During the holidays, she wasn’t distant like she sometimes was—she seemed happier, and it’s even more of a shock to miss the happy version of my mother. We are all smiling genuinely and happily, and we all feel warm and whole. Well, at least I do. I feel warm whenever my whole family is together.
Five months later, I would never have that feeling again. Or, at least, I haven’t so far. I considered myself suicidal before she died, but it was never like this. It was never at the level where I avoided my own home because the emptiness made me feel so empty that I’d throw up and hyperventilate if I thought about it, as it is now. It was never the feeling of being entirely scared and alone when my dad yelled at me about grades or traffic tickets, with nobody to crawl up next to me afterwards to say he didn’t mean all the things he said—to say, “He loves you very much, and so do I.” Now that I feel this way about my home—empty and miserable—the holidays are far from cheerful and loving. They only remind me of her absence. They only make me miss her more.
I wish I could tell you how I make it through. I don’t know. During the holidays, I’m finding it helpful to focus on things other than my family, including my mom: I leave the house as often as I can, distract myself as much as I can allow myself to, and surround myself with friends during the holiday season. This makes it easier, but it doesn’t make it easy.
Still, I know it won’t always be like this, because even though I feel like we’re broken right now, I love my family. I try to remind myself of this in the midst of my grief, even if it doesn’t provide me utter relief from it. I do appreciate that my dad really tries to get us the gifts we want—to let us have the stupid blue tinsel Hanukkah tree. The first few years have to be the hardest. The intensity of the grief I feel now feels unsustainable, but that immense sadness is also what gives me hope for the future. Things have to get better from here, because they can’t stay terrible forever. ♦