annie at christmas before she got sick

We griever’s know just how difficult the holiday season can be.

The season brings so many challenges with it.  The loss of spirit can be staggering.  Not jumping for joy when you get that special gift, not wanting to do a sing-song with the family, and perhaps the ability to show your appreciation with a radiant smile just isn’t there.  And somehow, the fact that you lost a loved one recently should not play a role in how your feeling during this festive season. Don’t buy into that theory.

If you don’t jump for joy when someone buys you a special gift, that’s your prerogative.  Anybody that loves you, is still going to love you, and should respect how you’re feeling.  One of the biggest problems I saw with grief during the festive season was folks trying to force behavior through gifting. I was never going to get too excited over a present someone gave me, it just wasn’t going to happen. I just wanted my pain and grief to go away, so I could enjoy life like a normal person. It takes time!

How does one prepare for the Holiday’s after suffering a loss?

In my opinion, I’m not sure you can. I mean, who wants to go shopping, buying gifts for others, while surrounded by hundreds of smiley, happy people. Not me! And I didn’t! I stayed in and used family members to help me make decisions on what, and what not to buy or do.

It’s important to understand, that for the most part grievers are terrible decision makers, and often see things as black or white, with no color in between.  And that’s because we live in the shadows of darkness and are so bogged down by sadness and often times traumatic memories, that we can’t think straight.  We think we can, but at times we also think it’s everyone else that’s nuts, and we’re the only ones playing with a full deck. And that was often the case with me over the past few years.

One day, my daughter told me I needed to go to a sports store or somewhere and buy myself a new pair of Tennis shoes. Apparently mine had holes in them.  Of course, being a griever I made a big deal out of making the trip to the store as I knew it was a conspiracy, to get me to go out and mingle with people, I didn’t want to mingle with. Which I still believe to be true.  But I went, and came home with a brand new pair of solid Black Tennis shoes.  

Prior to my grief, I would have never purchased a pair of Black Tennis shoes.  I always loved color and dress colorful. Anyway, when she came over, I put them on for her and flashed them around a bit, and she said, “Dad, why would you buy black Tennis shoes?  That is so not you.”

My reply, “why the hell wouldn’t I.”  I honestly didn’t know the light–I only knew darkness. And the Black Tennis shoes seemed to represent or reflect the darkness in my life at the time.

In December of 2008 during Annie battle with cancer, she remembered a small 4 foot vintage White Christmas tree we had in the basement, and asked me to go get it and bring it up with all our decorations. This was all while she was in her hospital bed in our living room.  She had me set the tree on top of an antique spool cabinet, where she could roll around in her wheelchair and decorate it.  And decorate it she did.

I never took the tree down and it’s been in the same place ever sense. That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I couldn’t even imagine decorating a Christmas tree while in the throngs of grief. And apparently I couldn’t imagine unplugging the lights on one either. Over a couple of years the bulbs burnt out. Now my dilemma is whether to put new bulbs on the tree or not, while wondering how I could exchange them without disturbing the decorations.

Holiday seasons can be a grievers nightmare, struggling with decisions that to normal folks come easy. Some would say, just change the lights! While others might say, don’t change them, you’ll disturb Annie’s creation. That stuff rolls around in my mind continually and may sound a bit silly to many, but to a griever it can be a real and valid worry. I even thought about putting up a new tree. After all, it has been 5 years now. It would give me something to do, but it takes spirit and vision to decorate a tree, and I have neither at the moment.

I guess I’m caught up in what I call, “what’s the point, loneliness.” I’m lonely, and what’s the point!  I’m the only one here and how many times can I tell the tree, “Christmas tree you are beautiful.”

Now, if Annie were to pop in and say, “Bobby, what a beautiful Christmas tree!”  I’d jump for joy wile crying and laughing at the same time. But you and I both know she is not coming back. So, what’s the point! What I’m saying is–missing a loved one at Christmas time is the ultimate illusion when trying to be happy.  I’m lonely, perhaps a bit bitter over my loss, but please don’t confuse anything I’ve said with being thankful. I’m truly thankful for what I have and the love my wife Annie and I shared for 39 years. I had a very deep love for her and her loss has messed me up,–and in a soft voice, I know it.  Isn’t that what this article is about.

Yesterday was her birthday, and with Christmas just around the corner, I get a double whammy every year. As per normal, the month of December is difficult for me, and at least for another Christmas I shall throw in the towel and simply do the best I can. And I know many of you will be doing the same thing.

If you’re a griever, don’t let others place too many expectations on you. Like, expecting you to be happy, when you’re not. And if you’re smart, you won’t put too many expectations on them either, which might ease some of your burdens of disappointment. I was a griever for four solid years and it still lingers. I know the expectations and demands some friends and family members will put on a griever.

Annie passed in November 2010, and of course I dreaded Christmas and New Year’s for many reasons. Here’s a good example why. In December of 2010 some folks that were very aware of my circumstances, would walk up to me, shake my hand with a hug and say, “Merry Christmas Bob and a Happy New Year.” To a normal person that is a wonderful greeting. But Grievers aren’t always normal people and see life through a different prism. Our prism has more darkness than light.  It can be filled with confusion, chaos, and certainly pain. Because we can’t see through the prism adequately, we don’t see the future clearly…Certainly not a Happy New Year.

I remember the day a lady walked up to me and said, “Bob, I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” but I better not, as I’m sure you don’t feel that way.  I loved it, and it made me laugh. She gave me the wishes while in the same sentence, acknowledging my grief.  Probably borderline manipulation, but very clever.

I know, that for a period of time my grief was so deep that I wasn’t right in the head. But honestly, I simply didn’t care. You know the old saying, “first you’re afraid you’re gonna die, then you’re afraid you ain’t.” That was me for a long time…I was literally fighting for my very existence. So this holiday season be kind to grievers. We all grieve differently, some deeper than others, and we may be a bit screwed up; but somewhere, locked inside that complex body of grief is a caring loving person that doesn’t want to be there, but doesn’t know how to get out.  Please, “help them.”

You own your grief

Take charge of your grief by doing only the things that make you feel comfortable. It’s a given that some non-grievers will push all your buttons in an effort to get you into the holiday spirit.  Please, be kind to yourself and don’t do what you just can’t do.  Others mean well, but have no concept of how you are feeling.  Tell them how you truly feel, and what your wants and needs are.  You might be surprised.

Some will listen to you intently and offer a helping hand, and some will say, I’m so sorry you still feel that way, and simply disappear. That’s the sad reality of a grievers life.  Try to understand, some people don’t know how to react to a downer, and we grievers can be real downers during the holiday season. We can’t help it, and we can’t change it. We can put a pretend smile on our face and appear to go about the festive season in a happy state, only to hear someone say, I wish he/she would cheer up a bit. Point is, no matter how hard we try, we can’t be what we’re not.  You are a griever and by nature, that makes you a very complex and hard to understand person from a non grievers point of view.  Stay true to yourself, be what you are, and do what helps you the most.  It can be very empowering and have a healing effect.  And that’s what’s important.

Nothing else at this moment in time should trump your healing.

So, during this fifth Christmas season without Annie, to be honest with you, not much has changed. Has my grief eased? Yes! How about my loneliness?  No!  Some things in life are not replaceable, and all the love I have for her is now becoming a superficial memory. Why?  Because I can’t touch it. I can’t hold her and feel her love, her hugs were always the best, and made life worth living and the holidays worth celebrating. That’s all gone now, my life has and will continue to change forever.

Sure, the memories are there, and therein lies a problem.  No matter how hard I try to hang on, memories fade too or get distorted over time.

The brown box

The lead in picture to this article is Annie setting in our living room a few years ago. She proclaimed her excitement over the big brown box I had carried over as if heavy, and sat down on the fireplace beside her. Although she didn’t know it at the time, it was just a gag, the box was empty. She handled it well!

So, if you’re a griever, don’t let your big brown box be empty. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by spending your time trying to make everyone else happy through pretense. Even if you’re doing your best and think you’re doing a good job, someone invariably will come over, hand you an empty box by saying, come on mom, dad, or whoever, get into the holiday spirit.  So you can’t win even when you’re trying.

They presume to know how you feel, so the smile on your face is not real.

Just be yourself and have the best Christmas you can, by making the best out of what might be a bad situation.

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to all!  With Love!

Hear the whole story in Bob’s book, Because of Annie. All proceeds are donated to cancer charities.

Written by Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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  1. Dan, thank you for the story, and I’m sorry for your loss. Being a caregiver for 7 years is very tough, and I commend you for the love you expressed to your wife. I too would gladly take care of my with Annie again if I could. That’s what love is all about. Be well Dan.

  2. hi all first time hear..caregivers you got too watch yourself..i heard many times over 7 years,taking care of my wife,,in home,never would let them go to nursing home..she wouldve hated it..i promised her too never, baby..the last year i was caught up in her..before swhe took her life..iwieghed 220,,now im 145 pounds,,im 6 foot 3 .. i didnt even thimk about myself one bit ..friends or family say take care of yourself,nobody there to help me,so i had to stay with my baby..she took her life in july..god i miss her..and i seen it,,you dont forget that ever…they all said they would be there after too for me…nope..i got issues with it all yet . dont dream my life on anybody ,but i would do it in a heartbeat to have her back…thanks all.i think that helped..just vwatch your self,holler for help if have to ..

  3. Times have changed J. Sadly in many circles, a griever is expected to drop their grieving and get on with life as if things were okay, or noting has happened. It don’t work that way. Black does not contain the significance it used too. Thanks for your interesting comment. I hadn’t looked at it that way.

  4. Lorrie, sounds like you’re traveling my journey. You’re experiencing all the things I went through. Please remember, what your going through is a natural progression for someone that suffered a deep loss. It can get really bad, and at times life seems so hopeless and pointless. One day you will walk out into the light and your dad will be walking beside you. You have to grieve to get over grief. And the one thing I know for sure, the deeper the love, the deeper the loss, and the longer the grief. It creates the perfect puzzle of a griever. And it is hard!! You’re putting the puzzle together now. And once you put it together, the healing will start. It can take a long time. Don’t worry about crying. I thought I’d cried a million tears, and then I cried a million more. That’s how we heal releasing our emotions. I’m gonna give you a link to Annie’s online memorial. You will cry, but it will help you heal. I wish you the best!

  5. Thanks Jennifer for the lovely words. It’s a tough time of the year for all grievers. But we muddle through waiting for the new year in hopes of a better tomorrow. Happy Holidays.

  6. I used to think that the custom of wearing mourning (black) was to show respect for the dead. I know realize that it was to protect the grieving, because it alerted people around them to their state of mind. Granted, it became too legalistic (“You can’t do this or that when you’re wearing black), but I think it’s too bad that we have dropped that custom, because anyone wearing mourning wasn’t expected to get into party mode.

  7. Thank you so much Bob for this article. You summed up all of my feelings! I have been desperately holding back the tears,knowing that Christmas was coming,then new Years eve,and then my dad’s birthday. Yes you are so right,when you say that you think you were losing your mind. I sometimes feel that I should go to a mental hospital,and commit myself. I haven’t felt this grief so deep before. Yes,other relatives pass away,and it hurts but when you truly lose your best friend,it actually physically hurts my heart. I can’t explain it to people. It’s only been 5 months,and I feel like a zombie. I’m suppose to walk around like I’m okay,but I really want to lay on the floor,curled up in a ball,and cry my eyes out. If this is grief,I don’t want to do this again,ever.I didn’t think i ever had that many tears! I don’t think that I would survive.I thought about joining a support group,but I honestly don’t want to sit with other people and be depressed and of course cry some more.I’m sending many hugs to you,and the understanding from me that you are not alone.Thank you again.

  8. thank you so much for your courage to share such deep things that touch your soul…So sorry for your loss and prayers for comfort through this holiday season.


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