Holiday Traditions, Grief, and Love

Christmas was right around the corner. The house was quiet. My mom sat at the kitchen table, starring at a blank sketch pad with tears in her eyes. She had yet to design her annual holiday card.  Ever since 1978 my mom had created the most beautiful drawings of our family. Friends and family looked forward to seeing how we grew in the illustrations, and how my mom’s artistic skills were perfected each year. Dad always personalized it with a verse that captured the heart of our family.

However, in 1993 we were faced with the unimaginable. My sister was no longer alive. How could they possibly create a card without both of us?  This was just the beginning of many traditions we would be facing without Stephanie. I wanted to go back to my childhood when things seemed magical and uncomplicated. I wanted to believe in the spirit of the season again. I wanted to find the peace and happiness my parents had provided throughout our childhood.

Our parents always had a way of making Christmas seem so effortless, while turning our home into an amazing wonderland. I remember our home feeling and smelling like a gingerbread house with warm lights and festive decorations inside and outside. Our house was filled with the most delicious aromas of homemade cinnamon lollipops, freshly popped popcorn, and sugar cookies in the oven. On Christmas Eve, I remember gathering around the fireplace, drinking hot chocolate, roasting marshmallows, listening to the sounds of Manheim Steamroller and George Winston. Life was sweet.

Preparing holiday cards was hardly a chore for them. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season that filled their hearts and kept them smiling behind their glue covered tongues and paper cut fingers. Or, maybe it was because my mom started working on her annual card months in advance. Her cards were a always amazing works of art, capturing our family’s history in such a memorable way.

One of her most elaborate cards was created in 1992. It was a detailed drawing of our house, including a decorated Christmas tree in the front window. Stephanie was a nineteen-year-old college student. She was drawn standing next to her car with a basket of laundry. Our family dog, Sandy, playfully greeted Stephanie in the driveway. I was seventeen, welcoming my sister home with a snowball. My mom captured that time of our lives perfectly. Sadly, this turned out to be the last Christmas card with Stephanie – the end of a very meaningful tradition.

My mom eventually designed a commemorative card in 1993, just five months after my sister’s tragic and unexpected death. The card was simple in comparison to previous years. I stood alone, with our dog by my side looking up at a star in the night sky. This was the beginning of a new tradition. Their holiday cards became illustrations of their continued inspiration and strength, filled positive messages of hope, faith, and love.

We remember her laughter, and how her smile filled us with delight. If granted one Christmas wish we would hug her just a little while and talk with her through the night. This holiday season seemed so difficult, because her loving hand was not here. Yet in our hearts we appreciate how much she was loved by everyone far and near. As we recall her curly hair and innocent eyes of hazel, we add to our fond memories great peace and comfort that we now share with the world, a very special Christmas Angel!”

Gene Schmidt, 1993

My parents lost a daughter. I lost a sister. We lost the same person, but we each lost a unique relationship. And how we approached and handled our grief was equally as different. At the same time, we had to pick up the broken pieces and move through our grief together as a family of three. After many years of sadness and anger, the love we shared for Stephanie helped the spirit of the season find its way back into our home and hearts. Stephanie will forever be our guardian angel.

Be gentle, even if we don’t fully understand. The holidays can be an extremely sensitive time when we are missing a loved one, no matter how many years have passed. Grief comes in waves, varying in intensity. The loss is magnified during the most joyous occasions. Grief is a lifetime process. We cannot expect ourselves, or others to be healed by a specific point in time. We continue to grieve because we continue to love.

Grief is not about “moving on with our lives” – this suggests that we are to pick up where we left off, seemingly unaffected by a life altering experience. I have learned that we move through our grief. We move through grief by embracing the support of family and friends, by starting new traditions, while holding onto our most cherished memories of the past.

We never stop missing our loved ones. In fact, we miss them more as the years go on without them. Eventually, we can learn to celebrate the life they’d want us to live.

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