So, today, December 18th, is the 10 year anniversary of my husband Don asking me to marry him, on a 23 degree windy Sunday evening, exactly one week before Christmas. Knowing my obsession with the Christmas holiday and the the entire season, he took me to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, got down on one knee in front of hundreds of total strangers and clapping tourists, and said: “Kelley, you are my best friend. Will you make me even happier and please also be my wife?” My fingers were so cold, I had to put my mittens back on right after he put the ring on my finger. Then I would take the mittens off, stare at the ring, then put them on again. We giggled and kissed and held each other, and then sat down at the nearby cafe that cornered the famous skating rink, and drank celebatory hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream. It was the kind of proposal that only happens in movies. But it happened to me.
The timeline of how I have dealt with “that tree” since my husband’s death has changed dramatically from year to year. In looking back at the past 4 and a half years, my way of coping with the tree provides a wonderful map of my progression through grief. Since Don died on July 13th (in 2011), my first set of holidays without him were just a few months after my entire world had collapsed. That first Christmas, I literally ran away from all things holiday. I couldnt look at or think about decorations or presents or ornaments or traditions or anything. The smell of christmas trees made me feel sick to my stomach, and if I even accidentally passed by the general area of Rockefeller Center in my walking travels through the city, I would purposely go a different way, or turn around and change direction. When they showed “that tree” all over my TV constantly, and had Tree -lighting specials and the Christmas Show at Radio City, I would change the channel, or run like hell.
My parents and I ran like hell from Christmas itself that first year. Instead of spending the day with my brother and his family, opening gifts and having our yearly traditions, we went to Foxwoods Casino on Christmas Eve and Day, and we played slot machines, had dinner, and did anything and everything else to try and ignore that it was Christmas. I told my parents that Im sorry, but I couldnt spend it with the family right now. It was just so painful. They didnt want me to be all alone, so they came up with the plan of us doing something completely random and non-christmas-like. In order for me to get through it that first year, I had to completely remove myself from it. I still, to this day, could not tell you the details of what we did in that hotel or casino in 2011. It remains a cloud of fog and surreal, floating and lingering in the air.
My second year without Don and my second set of holidays was probably the worst for me, because even though I was in more pain and hurting more than ever before, the outside world was over it. They were starting to get impatient with me, and suggesting and telling me it was time to “move on’, or saying “He would want you to be happy. Just be happy.” I was dying inside, and being judged from every direction. I sobbed and sobbed on December 18th, 2012, while in session with my awesome grief-therapist. I told her how people were judging me and suggesting I go to the tree to remember the joy of our proposal. “That is a terrible idea,” she said matter of factly. “You are not ready for that. Do not go there right now. The tree, and Christmas, will both be there for you when you are ready. Youre not ready.” I left her apartment and didnt listen to a word she said. Instead of walking to the subway station to go back to Queens, I walked in the direction toward Rockefeller Center. It was like something took over, and I couldnt stop myself. Pride? Stupidity? Ego? Trying to prove I was grieving fast enough for everybody? I don’t know. Probably all of that. The second my eyes saw the tree, I knew instantly it was a huge mistake. But it was too late. My body would not move. I grabbed the side of a bench and fell into it, cupping my hands in my face and sobbing loudly. I couldn’t stop. I sat there for over an hour that day, literally having an emotional meltdown at the place where we started the promise of our future together. The future we would never get to have.
The next two years after that, my grief-therapist started coming with me to the tree, and we would talk and cry and just feel whatever emotions I needed to feel. I told her the story of the proposal, she shared some things about her own marriage with me, and I felt safe and “okay” being there with her. It felt like he was being honored, and I was being allowed to get through it however I needed to, in that space.
This year, I had landed 2 free tickets to the Christmas Spectacular, so I took my friend Bobby on Wednesday evening. Since it was just 2 days from the 10 year anniversary of the proposal, and since the tree is literally right behind Radio City, we decided we would walk to the tree together after the show. So we did. It was around 11 pm at night, and the city was filled with people as usual. In the first moments of seeing that tree, my heart always sort of flips and leaps and skips around a bit. It almost feels like a drop – like my heart needs to catch it’s breath again and start beating correctly. But it was okay. My mind re-played that evening back in 2005, as I stood there with my friend Bobby looking up at that tree. I felt intense sadness and hurt, that my husband is not here, and that he is now just a feeling in my soul, or a collection of memories and moments that live within me. I didnt push any of my sadness away. I just stood there and let it be felt. And then, because I did that, I was allowed to also feel joy. I have never seen a more beautiful tree , as the way that tree looked last night. Or maybe it was always that beautiful, but my eyes are different now. Whatever the case, this is the year that I am finally, once again, falling in love with Christmas.
The reason I am telling you all of this, or writing all of this, is because I want you to know that there are many, many ways to cope with and go through your grief. It will take a lot of time and you will make mistakes, but you will figure it out. You will be the one who figure out what works best for YOU. You will be the one who puts that puzzle together. Sure, some other people may help you along the way, but you are the one in the driver’s seat. And it’s completely okay and normal if some days or weeks or months, you don’t want to drive anywhere and you just need to stay in neutral. Sometimes you’ll go the wrong way. Or you’ll go too fast out of pressure. But you’ll figure it out. That is what TIME gives you. Time doesn’t give you all that “heals all wounds” bullshit – what it gives you is a chance to get to know your grief, and therefore, be much less terrified by it. The first couple of years after my loss, I would have never imagined that I could ever love Christmas again. And yet, here I am, loving it again.
Yes, it is still sad. Yes, I miss my husband with every beat of my heart. Truly. And yes, holidays will never be the same as they were when he was here. That is all true. But the following is also true: I looked into the lights of our tree this week, and I didn’t run away. I carried the pain inside me, and I felt my way through it. And as I did that, it began to fade into the background, and a new kind of joy made it’s way to the front.
And isn’t that all kinds of wonderful?