Why Mourning Should Have A Place At The Holiday Table

Wouldn’t you want to be remembered when you’re gone? Wouldn’t you want to imagine that when people gather in the spirit of goodwill that rather than say nothing at all, they invoked what you meant to them?

The holidays are problematic. Everybody knows this, and the complicated feelings around any “meant to be awesome” celebration are compounded by the unsettling television commercials that begin their annual end-of-the-year marathon before people have pulled off their Halloween wigs.

All of these images attempt to uphold the “this is the right life” image that is difficult to resist and sometimes impossible to ignore. In these ads for everything from engagement rings to talking books for toddlers, families and couples are relentlessly happy and perfectly dressed and free of illness or disability. Their homes are sparkling clean, their gifts are wrapped in a color-coordinated way and placed under perfect trees (I have yet to see a Hanukkah bush in a mainstream commercial, so apparently everyone is also Christian). It’s enough to make anyone want to hide out in a basement for the last few months of the year. No parties, layaway plans, or family dinners. No holiday outfits, no “how to indulge without gaining weight” pseudo diets.

Last year I vividly remember my son Ronan’s hospice nurse, who had come for a visit the day before Thanksgiving, saying, “You have a lot to be thankful for.” I knew it was the last holiday season with my son, and I was right. He died in February. He never understood holidays, or celebrations, though he was a part of many. He slept through most of last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, eating little, as that was already becoming difficult for him. I remember feeling that familiar churned-up, ripped-up feeling that I felt for the duration of his illness. I drank too much wine at dinner and felt sad and sick the next day. Every day was a familiar combination of the bliss of being around him, and the knowledge that he would soon be gone.

This year, although I am a happier, more settled person, I miss Ronan, and find myself having dreams about him in which I am either trying and failing to save him, or I have agreed, with the help of some nasty genie, to have six more months of life granted to him, even though he will remain sick, and even though that is not what I wanted for him or what I agreed to do in my waking life. And there, in the television commercials, are kids about 3-and-half years old, the age Ronan would have been had he lived. They are playing with wash-away markers, sitting on the laps of creepy looking Santas, and frolicking in snowsuits on well-groomed lawns.

I miss him, and this is a big part of how I experience holidays. That doesn’t mean I’m not in a good mood, or that I don’t like presents or egg nog, just that I’m not the same person I was when he was living and I don’t want to be. I’m the mother of a child who died. And will be for the rest of my life. That title, too, doesn’t mean I’m hiding under blankets watching hours of mindless television and weeping into my spiked holiday drink. I’ve moved on with my life, made choices, and am looking forward to what comes next. I also miss Ronan. It’s both/and. So often people seem to confuse recovery with forgetting, but they are not the same thing.

Does mourning have a place at the holiday table or as a part of holiday celebrations in our culture? I think about the parents who lost their kids in the Newtown shootings last year, or the parents of kids with Tay-Sachs and allied diseases who have died in the last few months. I think about friends who have recently lost their parents, their spouses, and in the case of the recent Illinois tornado, their homes and the record of years of life together. How will they mark this year when so much has changed?

I think mourning does have a place. For my part, I don’t intend to sit down at one holiday dinner without thinking about Ronan—in part because he’s ever-present on my mind, and in part because we don’t talk enough about our dead in this culture. We’re not allowed to stay angry that they are no longer with us, because that’s viewed as “not dealing with it,” or “refusing to move on.” But nobody ever moves on. The day I die he will likely be one of the last people I think about and long for. I’m going to talk about him as much as I want during the holiday season—out of love, sadness, anger, and as a tribute to his short life and what it meant to me. Otherwise, I fear that he is in danger of becoming the ghost of the holiday gathering. The kid who isn’t present but should be. The phantom child. Some weird character out of a Dickens novel, rattling chains and terrorizing holiday goers.

Ronan is not a phantom. He is dead, but the meaning and memory of his life live on strongly within me. Someone asked me once when I was going to stop writing about Ronan, as if an appropriate time had passed and it was time to move on to more diverse topics.

I will never stop writing about Ronan. I will never stop thinking about him or loving him. His memory will always have a place in my everyday life as well as at holiday gatherings, and I no longer care if it makes people uncomfortable or makes me appear unbalanced. Wouldn’t you want to be remembered when you’re gone? Wouldn’t you want to imagine that when people gather in the spirit of goodwill that rather than say nothing at all they invoked what you meant to them? It’s what I would want, and it’s what I’ll do for Ronan.

Who do you want to remember this holiday season?

Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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