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I had it all planned out. The post was going to be titled “Have Yourself a Mary Little Christmas,” and it was going to be about embracing chaos and imperfection this holiday season. Like Mary, Jesus’ mother, who did not have such a merry Christmas: mile after grueling mile on the back of a donkey at nine months pregnant? Check. Giving birth in a stable? Check. The bible is glib on the subject of angels, shepherds and wise men, but leaves out the labor pains altogether. It can’t have been easy. Anyway, I was going to go on and on like this, and leave you with pithy parallels to your own holiday madness: Sleeping on the floor to accommodate guests? Hey, you’re right there with the Holy Family! Avoiding a particular family member? Try avoiding a crazy king who wants your child murdered! It was going to be good.

And it was going to be a lie. Hokum, bunk, balderdash. The real reason I’m keeping Christmas minimal this year is because I can hardly bear its celebration. It will be the first without my father. And I will not be with my mother, either, because our vacation fund was decimated by the trip we took this Fall, the one we never wanted to make. It’s going to be, to quote a different King (he of the funky jumpsuits), “a blue Christmas.”

I came into the world on a Christmas Day. My mother went into labor at Mass, five weeks before her due date. She remembers thinking, “Oh no. Any day but today.” But I left her no choice. My father remembered watching the Blue-Gray Game at the hospital, while my mother was in labor (Blue won). His first impression of me is recorded for posterity: I had a “mad, red face.” My mother’s are also recorded, in her own handwriting, that I looked just like her, only my eyes reflected innocence, and that she prayed they always would. (A lady at the beauty parlor remarked not long ago that my eyes looked “so pure and innocent;” a boss long ago nicknamed me Virginia — long after I was a married woman — because I looked so naïve and unsophisticated. I guess my mom’s wish was answered.)

Christmas is meant to be a family affair; at our house it meant Christmas in the morning, my birthday in the afternoon (I was born at 5:03 p.m.). This year I will be spending it with my husband’s family, whom I love dearly. But my dad will not be there to share his memory of the Blue-Gray game of 1964, or to reminisce about going out into the rain to buy flowers for my mother — my sister recalls that it was raining; the puddles were nearly up to her waist — or to purchase a necklace at one of the shops at Knott’s Berry Farm, a local theme park. (Who else would be open on Christmas?) He always called me “Honey.” I called him “Daddy,” middle age be damned.

I probably should have written the liar post. It would have been easier to read. No one wants to read this; no one wants to be bummed out at Christmas. But the blog was a lie.

This is supposed to be a spiritual blog. I guess I ought to be teasing out the spirituality of loss, but I’m just not up to it. So to everyone mourning a loss this Christmas I say: You are not alone. We grieve together, but we also rejoice together. And why? Because of someone else who was born on Christmas, someone who showed us that we never really die; we just move on to another state of being. It’s okay to mourn. But let’s also hang on to the greatest gift of the season, the one represented by that baby in a manger: Hope. I’ll see my dad again someday. I wonder who will win the Christmas football game that year?

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Depending who you ask, there are either five or seven stages of grief. Having recently become an expert on this topic (unwillingly — my father died exactly three weeks ago), I think I can boil it down to three stages, especially if the grieving person is a spiritual one.

Stage One: Acceptance. You think you can handle it. Sure, you’re sad, but you know your loved one is in heaven. You’re a religious person; you know God has taken your loved one to a better place. You cry, but you expect to. It’s okay.

Stage Two: Complete chaos. You’re angry. But not at God. Your spirituality won’t allow it. But you’re still mad. At whom? Not your loved one. Maybe you’re angry at Death. But Death isn’t a real entity. You’re stuck with feelings that you don’t know what to do with. So you yell at people on television, like those snotty folks on any given HGTV show who MUST have granite in their chef’s kitchen, although neither of them cooks, and a walk-in closet just for shoes, because why not? You’re sad, too, so sad you think you’ll never get past it. Some days, you just want to stay in bed with the covers over your head. But you’re embarrassed to say so because who wants to deal with a depressed person? I know people who went back to work the day after they lost a loved one. Why can’t I pull it together?

Stage Three: Acceptance again. You don’t get past it or over it so much as you get through it. And hopefully you gain a little wisdom in the process. Like this: Everybody grieves differently. Don’t let anyone tell you how to do it. You have to do whatever it is you need to do. But do listen to the advice of others: One friend told me, “Just cry whenever you feel like it. Even if it’s inopportune. Don’t hold it in.” I’m taking that bit of advice, probably to the consternation of others. I saw an older man in a white jacket the other night at a restaurant and nearly sobbed aloud. Because my dad had a white jacket. Stupid? Silly? I don’t much care.

Right now, I’m still firmly mired in Stage Two, with glimpses of Stage Three every once in a while. And I can say with some authority that grieving is hard, even for someone who considers herself a spiritual person. You’d think it’d be easier. You’d be wrong.

One of my friends says she knows her mother better now than when her mom was alive. She gets signs from her, the kind of signs you read about in Guideposts magazine: “My dad loved butterflies, and one day when I was thinking of him, a butterfly landed on my hand!” Maybe those things happen to other people, but they haven’t happened to me. (Unless the guy with the white jacket was really an angel, which I find difficult to believe…unless angels really like salad bars.) As much as I’d like a sign from heaven, I haven’t got one yet. Maybe I never will.

Grief tests you. It tests the things you believe in the most. And though my inner being is rocked by chaos, I haven’t lost sight of the things I believe. I’m holding onto them because I know they will get me through this. Whether there are seven stages or three, I’m going to get through it. Because all those things I said and thought at Stage One? They’re the truth. I’m counting on it.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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