The Loneliest Season

Coping with loss during the holidays

SG Buckley

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Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

My brother Mitch lost his husband in October. A blood clot; gone in an instant. “God needed Joe for other things,” explained Mitch, not one usually given to spirituality.

I’ve been thinking about grief lately. How you cope with great loss, and particularly how you cope during the holiday season.

Neighbours lost their 8-year-old daughter in a freak accident. I was walking my dog yesterday when the husband stopped me. He wants a companion for his son. Did I recommend our dog’s breed? We talk for a few minutes. He says his family is in a better place but first they had to let grief totally flatten them.

I can’t help but think the holidays must be brutal.

My brother spent the first month after his husband’s death at home in shock, half expecting Joe to come around a corner. Then, just before Thanksgiving, Mitch boarded a flight to Hawaii. He’s not there for the beach. Hawaii was among his husband’s favorite places. Mitch is there, he says, to pay Joe’s kindness forward.

Mitch’s husband was a generous soul. He was the kind of person who planted flowers in other people’s gardens. The two lived in Myanmar where Joe made a garden around their rental house. Finished, he cleared the overgrown land adjacent to their property, which was literally crawling with vipers and cobras. Appreciative neighbours call their new communal space “U Joe Paannhkyaan” or “Joe’s Park.”

In Maui, the epicenter of last summer’s wildfires, Mitch has volunteered at a wildlife refuge and at a kitchen making meals for the newly homeless. He’s spent four days at a food distribution centre, loading food and water into people’s cars. The backbreaking work is a welcome distraction from the excruciating pain he thinks will last forever. He’s been working like a maniac.

A Brazilian at the distribution center came up to Mitch at the end of a shift. “I’ve always wondered how the pyramids were built,” he said, “but then I saw you today. Mystery solved!”

The holidays must bring their own special hell. How can you be cheery when all you can think about is the person not there.

Writer Sarah Wildman lost her 14-year-old daughter, Orli. This is her family’s first Thanksgiving without her. “I wonder how we might all move forward, not just as each holiday comes, but as each day passes, not better, but altered,” she writes in the New York Times.

Still, Wildman says she is thankful this Thanksgiving “to know this love, even in its pain.”

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SG Buckley

Writer, editor, parent. Former staffer at Quartz, WSJ and Inc. magazine.