When Holidays Just Don’t Feel The Same

For everyone who’s feeling the weight of loss or the tides of change a little bit extra during this holiday season:

I see you. I share your pain. I am here. You are not alone.

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This time of year pays no mercy to those of us carrying the heaviness of grief. The holidays never fail to approach more rapidly than anyone could ever expect, and the onset of the season is always an intense and all-consuming one. While the fall and winter seasons and the holidays that accompany them have the capacity to breed inexplicable joy, gratitude, love, and laughter, for many people, even a passing thought of the holidays is enough to induce great anxieties, sadness, and feelings of emptiness. The holiday season has a way of reminding us all of the past, and despite how very different each of our experiences have been and continue to be, the nostalgia and sentimentality we all experience towards our childhoods and our pasts seems to be a universal phenomenon. That alone should serve as a reminder that, in spite of how alone we all may feel on our unique paths and in the potential pain or longing that we feel, we are never in isolation. Easy as it is to forget that, it is absolutely essential to acknowledge the commonalities in shared human experiences and emotion, for empathy and compassion for one another is more powerful than any feeling of loneliness could ever prove. Still, the difficulties and adversities that the holiday season bring to many of us cannot be neglected, nor should they be deemed unimportant or any less real than the moments of joy and hope we often feel during these times. In particularly painful or onerous times (even more so that usual), we must all try our very best to give whatever we feel the time of day and the allowance to simply exist. Moreover, the sentiments that arise and the ways in which we begin to think about ourselves, our lives past, present, and future, no matter how deep or weighted, deserve to be dealt with as they come. Over the past few years, I have found this to be both the most difficult and rewarding aspect of the holiday season. On one end, the pain of the process forces you into acknowledging and sorting through your internal turmoil as it comes, something that is never comfortable or easy for any human being. Having to sit with and find comfort in the discomfort undergirding all of what you are feeling or experiencing is often the most arduous, complex part of healing, for it asks us to push back against the negative emotions we so frequently try to avoid. Not only that, but it asks us to do so in some of the more treacherous times in our lives, as well. On the other end, however, validating your own thoughts, feelings, reactions, and behaviors in this fashion may not only offer the most genuine and helpful kind of solace in these times, but it will heal your heart and soul more than any form of ignorance or dissonance ever could. Learning how to acknowledge certain sentiments is one thing, and learning how best to cope with it all is another. Just a little reminder to give yourself grace in times of need— this life is a lot harder than many of us warranted, and is often unfair. Blaming ourselves for the trials, adversities, losses, or shortcomings we observe only begets shame, and shame breeds guilt and an incompleteness of heart that no one deserves. The last thing anyone needs is shame for being human. So offer yourself & everyone you love more than that. 

It’s around this time every year that I begin to think about my mom, even more so than usual. And well, if there’s anyone that understands the feeling of harrowing, painful nostalgia…you’re talking to her. I often joke that my life is a constant struggle in trying to decipher whether the nostalgia I feel is the warm, joyful kind, or the deeply painful and existential kind. I’m never quite sure which one I feel more often, but I do know that nostalgia is something that I feel every single day and often have to fight through, for it often only reminds me of the inevitable passage of time and the possibility that there are some moments in this life that I will be insufficient in cherishing until they become memories. I’ve dealt with a deep, deep internal feeling of nostalgia for as long as I can remember, and it seems to only become more and more intense as I grow older and have more memories to reflect on, people to cherish as they come and go, and experiences that simultaneously bring me happiness, sorrow, pain, and pleasure. It is all very much a journey, and part of the wonder of nostalgia is the mystery it always embodies. Over the years, I have learned how to navigate through feeling both happy and sad at the same time, for that is not only a possibility, but it is common for me and so many others in this life. I’ve put to rest my bad habit of discounting my own ability to feel such strong, contradicting emotions at the same time, and I have since found beauty and peace in being capable of feeling things so deeply. I am 100% an empath and a feeler, something I tried for SO LONG to change about myself by pretending like I couldn’t feel the way that I knew I did deep down, building up walls to protect myself, or even dissociating from my own mind and the pain I felt in a particular moment in order to escape and appear stone-cold. I used to be completely unreachable, and I was wrongly proud of that. I thrived on presenting myself as emotionless and unmoving, when in reality, the ability to be moved is such a wonderful gift. Now, I try my hardest to remind myself of this everyday, even when I feel weak. Because in the moments where we feel our weakest, we often find the greatest strength, heart, and will within us. So everyday, and especially this time of year, I urge everyone to grant yourself the grace to feel what you need to feel when you need to feel it, the hope that enables you to continue finding the light and love in life and in one another, and the knowledge that every obstacle, no matter how insurmountable it may seem, can be overcome. May the lessons of impermanence teach you this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.

If this year or any recent year, you have experienced a loss or change that feels relentless and indomitable, know this: I completely understand the place you’re in right now, and although I would never claim to fully understand exactly how you’re feeling, I do know what it feels like to consistently grieve the loss of what you knew to be your life. Learning how to maintain an awareness and appreciation of the past, the people, and the things that used to define us while synchronously navigating through new phases and modes of life is perhaps one of the greatest strifes of the human condition. In addition to the complexities that come with loss in general, the onset of the holiday season never fails to remind us of what “used to be,” who (if anyone) is missing, how traditions have changed, and how time has passed, bringing good or bad fortune. The weight of the season constantly highlights, more than any other time, how the missing or grieved puzzle piece has impacted the family in its entirety, the execution of traditions, and everything else, especially when is comes to the holidays themselves. It’s always around this time of year that I suddenly become overwhelmed with longing for my mom and all that she always offered to our family and the way we went about celebrations, and it’s most clear in these times that there is and always will be a significant hole in family gatherings, the traditions we continue to uphold, and in all of our hearts. Everything about the holidays reminds me of her— from the smells, to all of the lights, to the weekly festivities, to the plethora of decorations that she always loved putting up so much, to the holiday music and movies. Whether I am wrapping gifts and trying desperately to remember how she made those beautiful, extravagant ribbons for them all, or am watching some of our family favorite Christmas movies, or am sifting through old photos at Disneyland and Christmas Tree Lane, I feel my mom with me in every step. For me, there is no escaping the spirit of my mom in my home and in the spirit of the season, for she was and continues to be the heart of it all. And although that is heavy and often painful from moment to moment, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The lasting impact and presence that she continues to have in all that I do and how such important times in our lives are shaped reassures me that she is never forever lost, just seeing it all differently now. What a gift that is. Painful as it is to acknowledge the change (even undesired) that has inevitably come with time and the things and people we have lost, this same acknowledgement can and will also bring peace. Memories of the past are gifts in and of themselves, and the capacity to sustain an ongoing love and recognition for those we have lost is an even greater one. I have found that giving myself permission to miss my mom every single day, especially on the most special ones, is absolutely okay, for it helps me get through the times where I look around and all I can see is the space that she used to fill or the ways her smile and laughter lit up every room she entered. Further, I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s okay to wish that things were different and to mourn what my life used to look like and how it used to be. At the same time, I also have to be strong enough to propel myself forward and look towards new, different things, for I owe that to myself and to my mom for all of the years she was cut short. Besides, new and different might be just that— new and different. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as beautiful. There may have been other, perhaps even more special times. But this one is ours, and that is to be cherished.

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The holiday season really is the hardest time of year for a reason, so don’t blame yourself for feeling every bit of sadness, grief, loss, or loneliness extra right now. It’s okay to feel heavy and to sit with it all, so long as you recognize that a lot of the burdens you feel during and throughout this time are not yours to carry. On one end, it’s more than okay to feel however you need to in order to make it through each day. But it’s simultaneously not your job to ensure that the world keeps spinning . That is a responsibility of its own, and its okay to let go. You will undoubtedly find strength in those who surround and love you as time passes and you all find new and beautiful ways to celebrate what used to be while also cherishing what’s new. But you also have strength standing on your own. Don’t discount that. Still, I know how hard it is to mourn things and people who are lost, and there truly are no words to console that kind of pain. Just know that I understand it all so well, and that no matter how isolated and alone you may feel, you never are. I get it. It’s a strange feeling, and nothing makes you more aware of the passage of time than landmark life events and seeing the people you love experience them right there with you, even if it’s just through the onset of the holidays year after year. This season also often pushes us to (whether consciously or subconsciously) consider the fact that change is constantly occurring in a variety of ways, and that the only constant this life has to offer is change itself. But change doesn’t have to be painful, nor does it have to be a bad thing. New waves of life can be just as beautiful, as unfamiliar as they are. The knowledge that the love shared amongst you and everyone who surrounds you will never change is the foundation you can always rely on. Time changes a lot of things, but never the important things. Trust that. The holidays WILL feel like the holidays again.

On the days where you’re feeling like you can’t take another step, can’t breathe fully, or cannot find the strength to move forward, this is your reminder: you have survived every difficult day and every loss in your life thus far. You have surpassed every hardship you once believed to be hindering or faulting you. You have healed every heartbreak, even when you were unaware of your own healing and ability to become whole again, even when your faith was most hard to find. Nothing that has ever tried to break you has succeeded, and none of the trials you have faced were ever the end of you. You have ALWAYS moved forward, picking yourself up and courageously piecing yourself back together as you go. You have never failed to turn your losses and grievances into lessons, and you have saved yourself time and time again. In times where you feel as if you cannot continue or feel your way through anymore, remind yourself of all the times you already have. Remember the wounds you thought would never mend, the voids you believed to be permanent, and look how you have endured. Life is always going to be a balancing act, a journey that asks more of you than you think you can give. But life will never defeat you. You have always fought your way out of the darkness. Have no doubt that you always will. Just take one step, and do the next right thing.

 

 

Holding On and Letting Go

The funny thing about grief is that it forces you to constantly be stuck between trying to hold on— to all of the memories, the good times, the special moments, wonderful time shared and the unforgettable laughs— while simultaneously urging you to find a way to move forward. Not move on. Just forward. And so, you agonize day in and day out, desperately trying to find the PERFECT balance of both honoring and keeping your lost loved one close, while plunging yourself forward into new, terrifying lands undoubtedly vexed by some type of void you now have in your heart.  I don’t think there’s ever a right way to do this. In fact, I know there isn’t. That’s all people will tell you after you lose someone: “It’s okay to cry,” “Everyone grieves differently,” “Be grateful for the time you had,” etc., as if anyone could truly understand. The list goes on and on. The truth is that it’s incredibly difficult. For me, even impossible at times. I’ve spent the past year and a half trying to navigate through my own grieving process whilst entering my final year of undergrad, attempting to plan my future career, working to get back on a healthy track (mentally and physically), and dealing with all of the obstacles life continues to place right under my nose. Yet still, I know that my life is unfolding just as it needs to be. Although it’s damn hard to accept that the universe gives you what you need in this life and that the journey beset upon us are what we’re meant to embark on, I try everyday. I know in my heart that this world was not created merely to instill pain on the human beings who inhabit it, and that alone offers me some solace each day. I’ve always believed that life is nothing but an extensive test-run, perhaps meant to lead us somewhere greater. The pain and pleasure this world brings to us is not something to be discarded. I’ve learned to pay close attention to the things that occur in my life, the experiences and opportunities I have, and the ways in which they impact the course of my life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We need it all. I truly believe we are all a conglomeration and mixture of every aspect of our life and experience. The communities we work to build, the lessons we learn, the people who make us smile a little brighter and forget the pain in our hearts and on our minds, the families we trust, and the love we work so hard to create and share. It’s all needful. It’s all we have, and it is everything that is promised.

Learning to navigate through grief, trauma, and the lowest of lows I have ever experienced has taught me many things, about myself and about the world. The most important, though, has been my realization that I am not defined by what happens to me. Rather, I define myself in spite of what happens to me. I create my own life, love, happiness, and empowerment, despite what cards the universe hands me at any particular moment. I refuse to simply let my life happen to me. That’s not what she would want, and I owe it to her to live out what she couldn’t. This one’s for mom and all that she brought to my life. Here’s the story of how I lost my mom, best friend, and soulmate in the matter of an instant.

I’ll never forget that date. Sunday, April 9, 2017. Goes down in history as the absolute worst day of my life, let me tell ya. It began when I received a phone call from my brother-in-law at 9:28 am, something that was already out of the ordinary. I answered the phone worriedly, half expecting him to tell me something had happened to Adeline, my niece. I remember hearing through the phone how insanely fast he and my sister were driving down the freeway. Much to my surprise, he broke the news to me that my mom had gone into cardiac arrest and wasn’t doing well. I distinctly remember the last thing he told me being, “Just try to get here as fast as you can. Take the train, do whatever. I just really think you should come. I think you should be there.” After hanging up, I froze in my tracks, but somehow formulated a coherent (enough) sentence quickly telling my roommate what had happened. She ended up borrowing another friend’s car to drive me up to the hospital. I don’t remember much at all from that car ride except for my constant internal dialogue trying to convince myself not to throw up in my friend’s car and how often my sister Courtney & I were exchanging texts. When she suddenly stopped replying so quickly, I knew she had gotten some kind of news, and it was either really good or the worst thing imaginable. I remember weighing the options in my head in that moment, knowing too well that my life could look very different in a matter of moments. Indeed, my life did change. My sister called me to tell me that my mom didn’t make it before I had even made it halfway to the hospital, and my world was rocked. I can’t remember anything of what I replied back to my sister or what happened next apart from my best friend sobbing in the driver’s seat next to me while I just stared blankly ahead. I was the last one to arrive at the hospital, and much to my dismay, there was my entire family, extended and all, grouped standing and waiting just outside the hospital doors, unsure of what to do with themselves. Just like the movies. “So this is real life,” I thought to myself. I remember feeling like I was floating through those doors and into the room where my mom lay to see her one last time before saying goodbye. I sat with her for awhile and just talked to her, somehow hoping that the sound of my voice and my begging would bring her back. I didn’t cry for the entirety of that day or the day of her funeral, and I know that’s because she wouldn’t have wanted me to. She wanted nothing more than for us all to be happy, so I’ve always found it a little bit easier to try celebrating her life than mourning her death. Needless to say, my heart shattered into a million pieces that day, and though I still feel her presence, hear her voice, and smell her perfume, life proves itself to be incredibly tough without her each and everyday.

I’ve always been somewhat afraid of the reality of the world and how it works, particularly how very fleeting everything and everyone seem to be. Because of this, I’ve often had trouble being open and letting people get too close to me for fear that they would leave, something would be done to them, or that I would be so incredibly hurt that I would once again feel my heart breaking and be left with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loneliness. My mom’s passing was only a reminder of this immense fear of mine, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, the trauma that her death brought me only magnified those feelings of isolation and fear of dependency on anyone or anything in this world. It’s no secret to anyone that knows me personally that emotionality has never been a strong suit of mine, but I had never experiences detachment and such extreme dissociation than in the year and a half following losing my mom. The day she died, I physically felt my heart breaking into a thousand irreparable pieces, and I swear I could literally feel myself forgetting who I was and everything I had grown to become. I instantly shut down completely and refused to ever let anyone in, which only perpetuated how incredibly lonely and isolated I felt. At the time, I remember consciously telling myself to just not feel so that I could continue moving forward. I thought that if I simply didn’t acknowledge the horrible trauma and pain that I had endured, then maybe it would hurt a little bit less. Not only was I wrong, but choosing to cope in this way was only a detriment to my own healing process. I soon found myself becoming so accustomed to the solitude that I had taken refuge in at school that I became both emotionally and physically detached from my family and friends, struggled to decipher what was reality and what I was imagining, and even losing the desire to connect with others. I have so many wonderful friends at school and the best support system I could ever ask for. But I remember not even wanting their support, no matter how much it was offered and how much my wise mind knew I needed it. I felt and watched myself slowly deteriorate with each passing day, and waking up trying to be as functional and “normal” as possible become more and more impossible.

I ultimately moved back home the following summer (after somehow making it through the semester and finals season with straight As), which was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever gone through. Although there were countless things that made coming back home so difficult that summer, I remember dreading the quietness of the house most of all. I thought back to my childhood and how fun, loud, and constant the hustle and bustle of my family and our obligations had been, and I was in no way ready for that to all have suddenly changed. Sure enough, I came home to the same house that used to be filled with 5 people, music playing, memories of soccer and softball tournaments, laughter, and endless conversation, but everything was different. The house was now filled with only 2 people, no noise filled the air, and the stillness of the space was perhaps the most haunting realization that I have ever encountered. Needless to say, being home that summer was incredibly painful. I quickly fell into a deep depression upon coming home, something I had tried my best to avoid at all costs up until that point. Once I was back home, though, my ability to find distractions and detach myself from my painstaking reality had become severely limited, and I struggled to find a way out. I can distinctly remember how much pain I was in, how it felt, and how deeply it affected me. I would wake up in the morning so incredibly angry that I had woken up, for I said a silent prayer every night hoping that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to wake up and do it all over again. I remember struggling everyday to even find the will to live, because all that flooded my mind was how much I had lost in such little time. I now knew how quickly everything can change, and that terrified me. My entire life had been turned upside-down overnight, and I struggled for the longest time trying to accept the sad reality that sometimes inexplicable and horrible tragedies happen, and there’s nothing I or anyone could ever do to prepare for or change that. After going through endless waves of completely destructive and unhealthy strategies that I believed to be helping me grieve and move forward for an entire year (that’s a whole different story coming soon haha), I eventually found my way out of the darkness and allowed myself to embrace the love and support I always knew I needed in my darkest of days.

As I reflect today on my experience and journey thus far, I know that I have experienced the heaviest of losses and pain that is seemingly endless at times, but I also have hope and faith in myself to overcome. I miss my mom every single day more than anyone could ever imagine. Losing my best friend, confidante, adventure buddy, and soulmate will never be easier, and I will never be over it. I know I’ll always have half of my heart missing and the irreparable void that she left inside me, but I am learning everyday to embrace what she left me, even when it feels like emptiness. I will always be a little bit empty, but I’d like to think that emptiness is merely a special keepsake of the memories and time I got to share with her. My mom was always able to wake up with a smile on her face and focus her energy on the beauty and greatness of the world she lived in. Her appreciation for life surpasses any I have ever experienced before. She was the strongest, wisest, most loving and nurturing woman on earth, who also had the capacity to be powerful and unafraid. She was unafraid of being silly and making funny faces, for she knew that they would make someone else smile. She was unafraid of risking her own life and personal goals, for she always put others’ needs before her own. And she was unafraid of making mistakes, because she knew that we would always be there to help her out. My mom was completely fearless in all that she did, and that is what gave her the tenacity, ferocity and pure power that she beheld in all situations. Still, she was so much more than a strong leader. She was also the most selfless and giving human being I have ever known, and I can only hope to be half the woman she was someday.

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Words fail to explain how much I miss hearing her voice, picking up the phone to call or text her, going to Disneyland with her, singing in the car with her, hearing her say, “I’m so proud of you,” “Be happy,” or “I love you,” calling me her angel, and everything about her. I still feel her presence with every step I take and in my every breath, but the constant pit in my stomach that comes with the realization that I’ll never have the chance to see or speak to her again never subsides or hurts any less. There are so many things I wish I could have had the opportunity to tell her, but I never did. Now, I just have to trust that she knew how much I loved, appreciated and admired everything she did and all that she was, and hopefully that will suffice in giving me the strength to carry on. I know it will. Because I have everything I need already inside of me, and I am more than a silhouette. I am everything she raised me to be and more, and I owe it to her know just how worthy and capable I am of this life and all of the hope, joy, love, laughter and fulfillment it can bring. Learning to accept the things I cannot change and move with the winds this world creates for my life. Ebbing and flowing with every breath, overcoming each day. Holding on and letting go.