In the past two years my family lost two grandparents.
We’ve suffered through tragic physical and mental illnesses.
Jobs have changed.
People have aged.
Relationships got more complicated.
All to say, the holidays this year are… different.
Not bad, just different. We’re still a very close family. We laugh a ton and share stories for hours and pass my 15-month-old nephew around the room like he’s a white elephant gift everybody wants to steal.
Still, there’s no denying things aren’t what they used to be.
The holidays of my childhood are like Hallmark movies, except everybody is in shorts and flip-flops because well, you know, Florida.
We set up every table and chair in the house to fit everyone coming in town. Cars park for miles down the street. Kids play tag in and out of every room, their laughter echoing through hallways like a mid-90’s sitcom laugh track. The old folks take fat naps in their recliners after dinner, and we all play games late into the night.
We’re all just happy to be together in our perfect little dream world.
And this year I realized that entire dream is, at best, a half-truth.
It’s crazy what the mind can do with memories of the past. How well it shields children from the reality of pain and hurt in their young lives, a defense mechanism for a brain that can’t handle much reality yet. My version of the past is really an idealized version of history, smoothed over by years of forgetfulness and innocence.
I’ve forgotten the petty fights with my siblings. The adults never shared their financial stresses, or the memories of their own childhoods that plagued the holiday season. I never once stopped to imagine that my Grandparents might be hurting from their own losses—mourning their own childhoods at the same time I was living my prime.
Shielded by innocence and the passage of time, the vision I hold of the ‘old days’ is totally unattainable today.
Even the parts of that history that were real and incredible—and there are many—I’m totally incapable of bringing back to the present. They will never be my reality again. Grandpa’s ridiculous stories are gone forever. Gram’s loud laughter and spontaneous dance moves will never return. I can’t stop Cancer and Alzheimer’s from decaying their bodies. I can’t stop my parents and siblings from aging. And I certainly can’t undo the last few years of tragedy and pain we’ve endured together.
Truth is—we’re just not in control of this life.
And because of that, there are only two options.
You can stay stuck where you are or you can move forward into something new.
For too long I’ve lived in the first camp.
Dwelling on what I had lost sabotaged family gatherings for me. The reality of the present could never match some idealized version of the past, so I failed to appreciate what was right in front of my nose.
I learned that comparing your present reality with an idealized past will leave you hopeless every time.
That’s why you’ve got to move forward with your past into your present.
Hear me clearly. You don’t need to get over what happened—you will never get over the past—but you must stop allowing it to paralyze you.
Nora McInerny says that you don’t move on from your grief, you move forward with it.
I like that.
You’ve already lost what you had. And that sucks.
Loss will affect you the rest of your life.
There will never be another time before that one moment of tragedy.
So move forward with it.
Take a day, take two days, whatever, to properly mourn everything you’ve lost. Mourn the innocence that no longer shields you from reality. Mourn the empty seats at the table. Mourn that one decision that broke everything you once took for granted.
And then, pick yourself up off the floor and move forward with it.
It’s time to create something new, no matter how hard that is.
It’s going to feel like you’ll lose the memories of the people you’ve lost if you move forward. Like they’d be disappointed if you make too many changes (they’re not). It’s going to feel like you’re losing them a second time when you break the traditions you shared together. You’ll feel like a hypocrite when you finally accept that disastrous decision you made and step into today anyway.
And it’s all going to be okay.
Nobody will drop an anvil on your head from heaven.
Nobody is disappointed in you.
Wallowing in your grief will not change the present, but moving forward with it will create a life you’ll be proud to look back on in the future. The kind of life worth grieving over one day when it, too, passes.
That’s the natural cycle of this world—death from creation and creation from death.
Go build something from the ashes.