- When you lose someone, the holidays can be one of the hardest times of the year – the old traditions are indelibly linked to a person who’s no longer there.
- For our first Christmas without my dad, my mum and I decided to escape to a place we’d never been instead of staying home. That trip saved us, and we’ve gone somewhere new each year since.
- There’s no “correct” way to approach the holidays after grief. This is just the one that works for us.
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Mum and I were driving along Loop 360 in Austin, my hometown. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and we were chatting, as we usually did when we were together. But there was an extra weight in the air – a heaviness that permeated even the simplest topics. It was my first time home since my dad died a few months earlier, and grief was ever present.
It was dark out, both figuratively and literally. Donald Trump had just been elected, and I was about to go on a trip to London and Paris with my then-boyfriend. It would be our last time together before we broke up, and even before it happened, I had a bad feeling. We’d been in a bad place for months, and my grief over Dad wasn’t helping matters. It was the bleakest period in my life so far.
Which is why I remember what happened next so clearly, like a lightning bolt from out of the blue. “What about the Bahamas?” Mum asked. We were talking about doing something different for the holidays, since our previous traditions had been about the three of us. The idea of doing the same thing with just us felt hollow, so we wanted to get out of Austin and try something new.
“What about the Bahamas?” I repeated back.
See, we had never been the kind of family that took off to tropical paradise.
The idea of leaving at all was unusual enough, since we were always a home-for-Christmas family. You know the traditions: decorate the house with all kinds of holiday decor, have a ham dinner at the fancy dining room table that otherwise sat unused, unwrap presents as a family. It was quaint but consistent. And Dad was always part of it.
My father was the sweetest man you could imagine. He always went out of his way to make things better for me and my mum; he was utterly unselfish. On Christmas, he always would set the table for dinner, refill drinks if they were getting low, and wait for us to unwrap our presents first – even when we insisted he unwrap his. His love for us took up more than just his share of the room. Doing the same thing without him would feel woefully incomplete.
So while an island vacation was far outside of our norm, it also sounded right: the chance to get away from everything; to get some sun far away from the bitter cold of New York. A chance for Mum and me to breathe after the worst year of our lives.
That night, we booked a trip to Nassau, the capital. A few weeks later, we were sitting next to perhaps the stillest pool I’ve ever seen in my life, in the kind of serene resort environment that would have made me crazy as a kid. As an adult – especially one who spent most of that year going through hell – it was paradise. I felt at ease in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I could feel Mum recovering, too; the resort was like a cocoon for both of us, one in which we could both bond with another and heal away from the world.
Without that trip, I’m not sure we’d have been able to get through that first holiday – we avoided a pit a grief that would have consumed us both.
Each successive year has been an experiment in figuring out what we do, or don’t, want from Christmas.
The Bahamas trip was perfect for that first year, but it would be too quiet now. Hawaii, our second year destination, was perfect – just the right balance of Christmas spirit and relaxation – but travel to and from was a nightmare. Last year, we went to Coronado in San Diego. It was a disappointment, and arguably too Christmas’d out for two adults to enjoy. (I’ve never seen more little kids in my life outside of a Disney theme park.) Attempt number four, Santa Barbara, is right around the corner – wish us luck.
This trial-and-error is a relief because we’re experiencing it together. Sometimes we have a wonderful time; sometimes we hit trouble. But we’re a team through it all.
To say that Dad’s death changed my relationship with my mum would be to misunderstand our dynamic. We’ve always been close, and only grew closer in my college and early adult years. Even saying it made us “even closer” feels wrong. What it really did was make us each other’s primary lifeline in the world. While we have our own friends, at the end of the day, we value each other above all else.
When it came time for the holidays, we never considered visiting more distant family (of which there isn’t much), or shifting to spending time with friends. We always knew, instinctively, that the holidays would be for the two of us. And so there was a certain liberation to just throwing tradition out the window and doing what we wanted. We could do it, because we were the only people we had to answer to.
Instead of trapping ourselves in traditions that came before – at home with an empty third chair, in an environment that could bring out the most stressful elements of grief – we gave ourselves the freedom to escape.
We’re fortunate to be able to afford these trips, which certainly isn’t the case for everyone – for some, sticking with previous traditions isn’t a matter of choice. For others, it’s preferred. A friend of mine told me recently that in the wake of multiple family deaths, his clan has chosen to stick even closer to what they have done for years – to band together at a family home and share in that love. I don’t think there’s any one “correct” way to approach the holidays after grief. This is just the one that works for us.
Yet there’s some part of this new tradition that feels ironic, since Dad always wanted to ditch our family traditions for Christmas anyway. He liked the time with us, but never had a real affection for putting up the tree or decorating the house. The idea of going somewhere warm for the holidays would have been a salve for him. I wish we’d thought of doing this while he was still with us.
In that way, though, I do think of it as a tribute to him in some way. I feel his presence with us wherever we go for Christmas, like he’s joining us on the adventure he always wanted to go on. These trips aren’t a way to run from our grief, or from his memory. They’re a way to cope – to find good in what could otherwise be difficult. They have made the holidays a celebration, rather than a time for dark reflection. I’m sure Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Kevin O’Keeffe has previously written for Variety, The Atlantic, Mic, and other publications. He’s still waiting on that third season of SMASH. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.
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