In October of 2015 the man who had been my husband for fifty-six years died. December found me still numb with grief. As my children and I struggled to navigate the season without a compass, we were feeling a lot of things. Joy wasn’t one of them. If it was there, it was buried under a thick layer of pain.
It was time to write the annual holiday letter Jerry and I had always written together, but I felt lost.
Should I just skip it and leave friends wondering whether they’d been abandoned? Should I spill tears all over the page? Should I put on a happy face to hide the pain?
None of those choices seemed right.
Then I reflected on what had followed Jerry’s death. I realized that this was a season when grief, like the Wise Men, came bearing gifts.
I rarely weep, but tears were a gift that relieved my anguish. Old photo albums revived happy memories. I was comforted by the simple presence of my family and others who loved me. My church community took over planning the funeral. Neighbors brought food and chipped in with practical help. Loving messages poured in through letters, cards, and phone calls. Friends picked up relatives at the airport. Jerry’s former colleagues offered help.
And so I wrote my holiday letter mindful of the gifts I was receiving, gifts wrapped in love. The grief didn’t leave, but my dominant emotion became gratitude.
I decided to write as honestly as I could. The pain was there and I acknowledged it. I realized I was not alone, that many of my friends were suffering too. A few of them had also lost a loved one. Others might be facing a frightening medical diagnosis, or the end of a marriage, or a child mired in addiction. Or they were haunted by the gnawing fears of aging or loneliness.
My own grief had sensitized me to notice the losses confronting others. I realized that many of the people who wrote only about family fun and personal successes and talented kids were also carrying an invisible bucket of tears. But keeping pain locked in a closet carries an emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical cost. I wanted to be real, hoping this would give others permission to do the same.
My former pastor once said, “We love others because of their vulnerability, not their strength.” If you’re ready to risk being vulnerable, you might begin, “This has been a hard year.” Or “a year of love and loss.” Or, more positively, “This has been a year of grit and grace.” Be positive but be real. Your own truth-telling may free others to face their own situation with courage.
On a positive note, remember you’re still alive. You’re a survivor. Reflect on your own sources of strength. Work? Faith? Family? Friends? A larger purpose? A stubborn will that won’t give up? Name it and claim it. Others may need to hear what has helped you.
Finally, include at least one story in your letter. After he died people wanted to tell me stories about Jerry. Many surprised me. They illustrated his kindness and generosity and humility. They sparkled with humor. They showed why so many people loved him. I put them in my letter.
Ending your letter on a positive note will bring hope to the recipients. Your honesty will inspire courage. Your letter may be the best gift a grieving friend receives.
And having given it will bring you something that feels like joy.
This essay appeared in USA Today on 12/11/17.
Dixcy Bosley says
This was very meaningful to me.. I sent on to our bereavement counselor at hospice.
Hope you are enjoy a Chesapeake holiday with your sweetheart and families.
Camille Harris says
Beautiful and wise words, Carolyn. My husband, Dennis, lost his dear wife of 33 years, who was also his business partner for the last 21 years of her life, to cancer in 2003. Fifteen months after Dennis’ wife passed away, he and I met. Two years later, I became his business partner and three years later, I became his wife. Both Dennis and I have been deeply blessed by finding love and companionship during the second half of our lives. Life is full of hope, promise, and blessings – we sometimes just have to wait a while to realize it. I enjoy telling our story to new clients because they always say, “What a great story!” I think it helps set the stage for our work together: Out of pain and sorrow can come peace and happiness.
Carolyn Parr says
Thank you, Camille. I, too, have found love and companionship with one of Jerry’s colleagues, whom I’ve known for 50 years. The grief was real (Jim lost a wife of 49 years to cancer five years ago), and so is the joy.
Tracy Messer says
Your words spoke to me personally, Carolyn. This has indeed been a year of “Love and Loss” and “Grit and Grace” for me and my family. Thank you for helping me to express this to my wider circle of family and friends.
With fond memories of you, Jerry, and family,
Carolyn Parr says
Tracy, I’m sorry for your losses this year. I’m sure it’s hard to see it now, but try to trust that joy will come in the morning. It did for me.
Glenn & Opal Dow says
Thank you once again, Carolyn. You are a gift of God that keeps on giving. Your expression of the pain of loss being mitigated by the gifts of love you received from so many because of Jerry’s life and gift of himself reminded me that despite the passing of Dad in ’82, my brother Ray in ’95 and Mom’s passing in 2009, I am so blessed with the gifts of memory…just as you are and maybe, just maybe I can still keep on giving & sharing.
Love to you,
Glenn & Opal
J.J. Steiner says
Although I have not yet had to face such grief in my own life, I am thoughtful of the future and what it may hold for me. Thank you for your gentle honesty and advice.
Carolyn Parr says
Thank you so much for taking time to write. I appreciate it.
Alice Azzouzi says
Carolyn, knowing both you and Jerry, it makes my heart sad but what joy knowing how he stepped in during our transition of Mary Hitchcock. His love for Mary Easley and her family. But, as I know your sorry is deep, I hope as days go by you will remember just the joys of a life will spent with warmth and love. I don’t know your new husband but I am sure he has many of qualities of Jerry, if you picked him.
I lost my grandson 3 yrs ago in Sept and the sorry that is still very raw. His sister able to adopt his two young boys and I see so much of him in them and that brings joy to me. I was able spent Christmas with them all. I am very heart broken to have found out in Oct that my daughter has liver and pancreas cancer, this is my grandson mother and my only daughter. So the season bring joy through young eyes and sorry of those in pain. My we all find hope and love through Christ who strengthen us.