How I nudged myself out of my grief cocoon to find all that glitters at Christmas again for my father, family, and myself.

Sherry Sweeney with her daughters – Shannan, Peggy, Erin and Kelly

My mother was all that glitters at Christmas time, our sparkling star on top of the tree. We tragically lost her to Alzheimer’s last year and our holidays will never be the same. Last Christmas, it had only been five months since she passed, and we got through it a day at a time. However, I believe this year will be tougher since the pandemic has put a halt to holiday parties, church services, and all those things that were a distraction last year. The isolation we have felt this year makes me crave my Mother’s presence during the holidays now more than ever.

A small opening in my heart is a sign that I am healing.

Remembering my childhood holiday memories and flipping through old photos, I try to fill the void. I am grateful for the Christmas’ of yesteryear and ready to create new memories. The small opening in my heart is a sign that I am healing.

Growing up we each had our own box of ornaments, and as our collections grew, our boxes got bigger with our names marked on the top in red. We would go to a fancy florist and gift store in Baton Rouge for their holiday open house on the first Sunday of December. It was a family tradition and kicked off our Christmas season. It was a special day. We would attend mass dressed in our holiday outfits then rush over to the noon opening. The parking lot would be packed with families waiting for the doors to open. Making our way through the crowded aisles we would gaze at the beautiful decorations while carefully trying to decide on the perfect ornament to add to our collection.

“Do you like this one, Mama?” we would ask as we all needed her approval. Of course, she would check the price. She would approve or make other suggestions while we would snack on my favorite holiday butter cookies with red and green sprinkles and hot chocolate.

Last year was too difficult emotionally to pull out Mom’s decorations.

My box of cherished childhood ornaments moved with me to Houston, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and then to Baton Rouge when we moved home after my mother was diagnosed with the Big A. My box of ornaments lives in our storage unit because my husband and I still live with my 85-year-old father. Last year was too difficult emotionally to pull out Mom’s decorations. Plus, my dad was recovering from total knee replacement surgery and I was scheduled to have surgery after the holidays. We were frozen with grief and we didn’t put up a tree. My sisters were horrified.

“Christmas was Mom’s favorite holiday! How can you not put up a tree?” they told me and I could see the disappointment in their eyes.

“We aren’t feeling the Christmas spirit in the house without Mom. If we feel the need we will come to your homes.” I replied.

Memories of drinking hot chocolate with Mom in front of our tree while watching the twinkling lights and listening to Christmas carols didn’t dance in my head, they only pierced my broken heart.

The emptiness cuts deep, but the need to heal is greater!

This year, with the lingering pandemic, the need to feel my mother’s presence overwhelms me. I want to see her smile, smell her perfume, be embraced by her hug. I want her to tell me everything will be OK, that I’m OK, and it is OK to celebrate Christmas without her. The emptiness cuts deep, but the need to heal is even greater, and it nudges me to take action. Acceptance is the key. She isn’t here but we can celebrate her spirit by decorating for the holidays.

Last Sunday, my sister Kelly, came to help decorate along with her son and daughter. Within minutes, my nephew, husband, and father had pulled the decorations out of the attic, lugged them down the stairs, and placed them in the living room.

“Alexa, play Christmas music,” I requested as we began pulling out the ornaments as the guys assembled the fake tree. Only half of the lights were working so I threw on my coat, jumped in the car and went to buy new lights. It felt like a cluster and I was full of anxiety. Take a breath, Peggy. Just breathe. It’s going to be OK, I told myself pulling out of our driveway. It was cold, rainy, and gloomy which only added to my melancholy. I’m a sunshine girl. I never understood the people who love rain and cloudy days.

We could improvise. Instead of wrapping lights around the tree, we could zig-zag the lights…

I stopped at two stores. The first one was sold out of white lights and the second one only had LED white tree lights. When I arrived home the LED lights didn’t match the existing lights. I wanted to cry. My dad saw my downfallen face and volunteered to return them. In the meantime, we found more lights in the hall closet so the light problem was resolved. We could improvise. Instead of wrapping lights around the tree, we could zig-zag the lights across the front. Nobody would see the back of the tree anyway.

Within two hours, the tree was decorated and the nativity scene was placed lovingly on the mantle. My niece Jillian had displayed mom’s decorative angels and some of her Santa’s around the living room, kitchen, and in the hallway. We found the JOY pillow Mom made when I was in high school and placed it above the living room door. Finally, I placed the beautiful wreath on the front door and smiled. Mission accomplished. The house looked like Christmas. Mom would be proud.

My Mother’s Homemade JOY Reminding Me To Choose Joy!

“Let’s go to brunch!” Kelly announced.

“Y’all go. I can eat leftovers,” Dad replied.

“No, Dad. We need to take a break. Let’s go to brunch,” I insisted.

We laughed and shared old stories of Christmas Eve.

Soon we were at a local restaurant ordering chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and seafood omelets. We were starving and split everything. Kelly had a mimosa and Dad had a bloody mary. We toasted decorating the house! Our last-minute brunch felt festive. We laughed and shared old stories of Christmas eve’s at the house with my young nieces and nephews performing a live nativity scene with Mom as the director, producer, and event planner. Our brunch was a celebration of stepping out of the grief cocoon and bringing life to our home again.

“Brunch was a great idea!” Dad exclaimed leaving the restaurant smiling. He looked happy and I felt a sense of peace. We are moving on.

After brunch, we returned home and went through my mother’s Santa Claus collection. My mother had collected decorative Santas for years marking the name of a daughter or grandchild in her beautiful handwriting with a black marker. There are 17 Santas. My husband and I were gifted the Irish Santa Claus and Mrs. Santa Claus dressed in green tartan. I took them out of the box and placed them on the shelf.

The Irish Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus — My Last Christmas Gift From My Mother

“Let’s post an Instagram video of us decorating the tree,” Kelly announced pulling out her cell phone. We danced and placed ornaments on the tree. Within minutes the video was up and we were laughing hysterically. It was a perfect ending to a special afternoon.

My mother was a “more is more” southern woman. You could never have enough Christmas decorations, outside lights, presents …

Over the next few days, I wrapped the Santas with the endless Christmas wrapping paper we found in a huge plastic container and placed them under the tree. I could wrap presents for the next 15 years and never use all of the pretty paper my mother had collected, not to mention the rolls and rolls of beautiful ribbon. My mother was a “more is more” southern woman. You could never have enough Christmas decorations, outside lights, presents, stocking stuffers, wrapping paper, holiday cookies, and buffet food. You were never going to be hungry at our house. We have all inherited her “more is more” mentality.

Everyone will be blessed with one last Christmas present from Mom this year on Christmas Eve. Our treasured Santas will be displayed each year in our homes as a beautiful reminder. Mom may be gone but her spirit lives on and sparkles like the star on top of our Christmas trees. My memories of my mother will always glitter at Christmas time.

Eight Tips To Decorate For The Holidays While Grieving For A Parent:

  1. Take Action — It is easy to get stuck in the emotions, dread, and anxiety of decorating for the holidays. Set a date and time and stick to it.
  2. Ask for Help — Siblings, nieces, nephews, and friends will be eager to help if you tell them you are struggling and need support. Decorating with a group is more fun than doing it yourself. Make it an event to remember.
  3. Pause — If anxiety creeps in, and it will, pause, breathe, and pray. Take a bathroom break. Walk outside and get some fresh air. Ask the universe to support you.
  4. Lunch or Dinner Break — You don’t have to do it all at once. Stop for lunch or dinner, order a pizza, or make sandwiches for everyone. You can spend this time laughing and bonding over old memories — the good, funny, and the sad.
  5. Play — Crank up the festive holiday music. Dance around the Christmas tree. Share memories and stories of the ornaments and decor.
  6. Wrap Up the Memories — Find ornaments, decorative holiday items, old jewelry, unused candles, holiday mugs, or serving items then wrap them for everyone in the family. This last holiday gift from a parent who is no longer with you will be special and the family members will be touched.
  7. Self-Compassion — Allow yourself to feel the grief when it creeps up, but tell yourself it is OK to move forward and enjoy the holidays.
  8. Get In The Kitchen — Pull out old family recipes and get busy in the kitchen. Cooking favorite holiday recipes can warm your heart and feed your soul. 
Sherry and Myles Sweeney

My Christmas wish this year is for every family to heal from the loss of what was and to look forward to the beautiful possibilities of joy and grace with the people who surround you today. The magic of Christmas is here if we look for it! Happy Holidays!