As I was setting up my little Christmas tree a few weeks ago, I happened to look at the small manila envelope containing my dad’s ashes. I picked up the envelope and sat down cross-legged under the tree. I stared at the envelope, reading the shiny label with his name neatly typed across it. Sitting there under my very first solo Christmas tree holding his ashes, I thought of holidays growing up with my family, with my dad.
I slowly opened the envelope, pulling out the plastic baggie with his remains. It was the first time I opened it since he died 3 months ago. I just stared at it, feeling confused, shocked, grief-stricken. There was another shiny label with his name neatly typed across it- I suppose to make double sure it wasn’t accidentally someone else’s ashes. My logical mind had so many questions. How can 1/3 of my dad fit in this tiny little bag? Why are his remains white and grainy like sand? Aren’t ashes supposed to be gray and fluffy and sooty? It is white because only his bone fragments remained from the cremation process? I sat with him, Jimmie Wylie, my father, and churned through all these questions, mentally trying to sort out how part of his body could be in my living room. Tears fell as I gently placed his ashes under my tree. I felt disoriented for a few days afterward.
Christmas morning I went on social media and saw image after image of families and households of friends posing in front of their beautifully decorated trees. My first reaction surprised me – anger. I felt royally pissed, like every image was rubbing it in my face that I was spending the holiday away from all my family, and distanced from friends too. I wanted to tell them shove their “happy holiday” where the sun don’t shine.
I’ve learned that anger is often the equivalent of a billboard sign pointing to a place of sadness, insecurity, or fear. So I took that anger and all those “happy holiday” images and turned inwards. What I found – surprise, surprise – was grief. This grief was more than missing my family in California, more than my dad’s still recent death. This grief sat in the heart of a little girl who used to believe in Santa, a little girl who believed her dad would always be there to open presents Christmas morning. I saw this grief, I could acknowledge it mentally, but it was still locked up in my body. It was stored in my tensed shoulders, neck, and jaw. It was especially tight between my shoulder blades, in the back of my heart. I felt all my grief there – along with the anger – and continued to hold it in.
That night I was once again sitting under my tree and, once again, I found myself looking at my dad’s ashes. I picked up the small bag and held it to my chest. As soon as I did I felt a wave of energy course through the room and I burst into tears – the kind of tears that are accompanied by deep wrenching sobs and far too much snot. The messy kind of tears. I cried in anger, in sorrow, and in love & grief.
I cried because I hadn’t spent Christmas with my dad in over 10 years, since after my parents divorced. It wasn’t intentional. We would send cards and talk on the phone every holiday, and that felt like enough. Along with feeling sad I missed all those holidays with him in person, I also found myself wondering about his first Christmas after my parents split up. Did he decorate a tree? Did he open presents Christmas morning? Did he feel angry or sad or alone, or all of these feelings?
As I sobbed those messy snot-filled tears, I had the sense I was crying out not just my grief, but his too. As I cried, I remembered the incredible loving connection I was able to create with him in his last several months. As I cradled his ashes I realized this was the first present under my Christmas tree – a plastic baggie with a shiny label with his name, Jimmie Wayne Wylie, neatly typed across it. A plastic baggie holding approximately 1/3 of my dad’s remains gave me the greatest gift – it helped me remember I wasn’t alone this holiday… my dad was there with me.
I brought his ashes into my room, setting them next to my bed, and asked my dad to watch over me and keep me company. I fell asleep with a weighted heating pad on my chest to help calm my nervous system, and envisioning the image of my dad comforting me when I was a little kid. The next morning I woke up feeling dried out and drained, but at least a little bit lighter.
Grief can hit hard during the holidays. In this year of pandemic isolation, grief hits extra hard. Solitude offers much wisdom and solace for grieving, but isolation… isolation is detrimental. For some it may be downright dangerous. So reach out to those in your life facing loss and isolation this holiday season. And as you think of your own holiday experiences this year I invite you to take a moment to take in – and I mean REALLY take in – these Christmas reflections and my “happy holiday” picture. Sit with it. All the layers of it. If desired, please share what comes up for you.
Happy Holidays and a Blessed New Year to you and your family, on earth and in spirit.With love from a daughter, sitting under a Christmas tree, holding 1/3 of her father in her arms.