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The Bittersweet Taste of Sadness During the Holidays

"That’s my child” my mom cheers as I pour myself a glass of half tea and half lemonade (an Arnold Palmer, I’m told it’s more commonly known as).

I’m standing in the kitchen of my Uncle’s new, quite opulent, house at a family gathering to unofficially celebrate the life of my grandfather. As I take a sip of my drink, I think about how it is a drink I’ve really come to enjoy at the ripe age of thirty one which my younger, less refined palate didn’t allow for. Something about the mixing of the bitter taste of tea and the sweet taste of lemonade are quite harmonious when they’re in the right balance. Not too much of either.

Moving to sit at the table with my grandfather (Papaw, we call him) makes me think about how bittersweet this moment is. It’s been years since I’ve sat around a table with this many members of my family, not just because of COVID but also due to life at large. People move, people change, life goes on, and we forget how much it means to each of us to gather together.

My Mamaw (Papaw’s beloved wife) passed away in 2019, she was married to my Papaw for 63 years, precisely one more year than double my current age; but in this moment my Papaw seems happier than ever surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. I think about how bittersweet this must be for him but then I’m caught up in his smile and laugh, brought back to the present moment.

I know I’m far from the only person who has lost a loved one, but as we move into the holiday season it becomes especially prominent in my mind. There was a great deal of loss for me in this season and it is all too easy to let those thoughts push their way to the front of my mind. I try to call to mind the words of the famous mindfulness author Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote about understanding that our loved ones aren’t as “lost” to us as we think they are.

“Visualize a cloud in the sky. Maybe one part of the cloud has become rain; half of the cloud remains in the same form and half has taken a different one. And you cannot say that the rain is less beautiful than the cloud, or the cloud is less beautiful than the rain. They can both be beautiful.

When you live with your beloved one, be aware that he or she is a kind of cloud. You are also a kind of cloud and are not entirely here in this body, because every day you produce thoughts, speech, and action which continue independently of you. So the person that you believe is already lost is not lost; he is still there in other forms. Look for him inside yourself, look for him in your children. That person is still available in the here and now.

So when you look at the rain or the tea, if you recognize your cloud there, your sorrow will vanish. You will know that your cloud still exists in new forms, and you can talk to and be with your cloud.”

As I write these words I can’t help but think about when these words became real to me. I am 27, driving back from my maternal grandmother’s funeral. The last time I saw her alive she patted my hand and assured me she would be home for us to celebrate Thanksgiving. A few short weeks later I got a phone call that I needed to make plans to be present at her funeral only a week before Thanksgiving. I think about sitting at Chick-fil-A after visiting with her, optimistic that she would leave the hospital and celebrate another year of gratitude with her family, a thought that to this day turns Chick-fil-A into ashes in my mouth.

As I’m driving back from the funeral and the sun has long set, I hear these words play over the speakers in my car:

And when you sit and picture me

Remember sitting in the sun and dancing in the rain

The end is not the end you see

It's just the recognition of a memory

My grandmother asked for my brother and I not to visit her as her health declined. She wanted our last memory to be one of her vitality, sense of humor, optimism, and indomitable spirit. In the years since then I have searched for those same qualities in myself. I have tried to find the spaces where those things live on in me. Things that were passed down to me through my mother.

This time of year brings back all these memories and more. There’s the bitter reminder of the things that I have lost but there’s also the glimmer of knowing that all of these things aren’t lost entirely. They exist this year as a celebration of my grandfather’s good health and the laughs of the great grandchildren as they grow into the young men and women that will carry on the love of life.

I draw a deep breath and focus my mind on the upcoming holiday season and all the things I love about it. I remind myself of the taste of my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies, her insistence that I sleep for fear that Santa wouldn’t come otherwise (even into my twenties), sitting around a table at my Papaw’s house watching all the adults play cards, and millions of other moments that I will savor for the rest of my life.

Some of these sweet moments may be lost in the present, but they are not gone forever. They are a part of who I am. They are memories that I will carry and hopefully symbols of love that will be reborn in a multitude of ways. I call all these thoughts to mind because I know that the alternative can be depression and despair. It can be the unbearable weight of loss.

Andrew Solomon wrote “Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”

It was a difficult decision for me to show up and sit at the table with my aging grandfather. It was difficult to think of all the good times gone. It was a decision that I will make time and time again, coming back to this and other tables to celebrate the good times because they are what makes the weight of all of this bearable. They are a source of strength and they are the continuation of all those that came before me. It doesn’t entirely eclipse the feelings of loss, but it is what gets me through today. It was sitting in the sun and dancing in the rain. It was the bittersweet taste of my drink and the drink of my family. It was a small part of what it means to be human and it is the shape that the clouds have taken today. It is my smile today.

If this is a difficult time of year for you or someone you love please seek out help from a counselor or other professional who can help you process it in a healthy way. Grief, loss, depression, and all of the other darkest moments of life are not something you have to experience alone and we would welcome you to tell your story and feel whatever feelings you feel today in our offices with us.

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