Christmas morning. At long last. Safe to say, nothing in Cat’s life up until now can begin to compare with today’s excitement. A month of growing anticipation. Surrounded by Christmas everywhere, wherever we go. Go to the store and it’s suddenly become a Christmas wonderland. The plaza where she rides her bike is decked out in lights. TV shows, tablet games and books – everything is suddenly all about Christmas. But somehow it’s not Christmas yet? Excitement and confusion. Agonized waiting. Endless imaginings of Christmas morning, every imagined scene more grand and magical than the last. Strangers approaching her, demanding to know whether she’s been good this year. If Santa has picked her as one of his chosen ones. (Please don’t ask kids questions like that – this time of year is hard enough on them already). Suddenly everyone is so very curious to know what she wants. Pressure building until she’s ready to burst. Our regular schedule, such as it is, is shot to bits. Instead, our life is suddenly filled with Christmas traditions that bring nostalgia to mom and dad, but mean little to a four year old.
Travel to see family, parties, twinkly lights. Lots of cooking and shopping. Wrapping gifts for other people. Plenty of stress. Unfamiliar places, people, food, and just way too much sugar. Nothing is normal anymore. And then, finally, all of this ruckus concludes with the big day itself. Presents under the tree. Stocking is magically stuffed full of goodies, rather than hanging empty and forlorn. And the answer is finally yes. Yes, you can dig through your stocking and discover each and every treasure and treat. Yes, you can tear open your gifts in a mad, enthused frenzy. Yes, you can consume even more sugar. Yes, you can be treated with an excess of adult attention. You’re the only child amidst a group of nostalgic adults on Christmas morning. All eyes are trained on you. Moments that would usually be met with a ‘no’ are instead answered with a ‘eh, it’s Christmas, go ahead kiddo’. It’s simply magic.
The first blow came pretty quickly. A handful of presents and a stockingful of goodies, and then it was over. She was done. She was enthusiastic about the gifts she had received, sure, but no matter how magical, no matter how many gifts, treats or surprises, the reality of Christmas morning never had a chance of comparing to the pictures she had concocted in her imagination. “That’s it?” She asked us sadly. “No more gifts?” She was able to recover from this initial sting fairly quickly, rejuvenated by the excitement of the rest of the days’ festivities, happily engaging in the family celebrations. But then, at the end of a long drive, the let-down hit hard. We were back home. Back to normal. The magical day was done.
Looking back, I don’t even remember what the catalyst was for Cat’s onslaught of grief, but something triggered it within moments of getting out of the car. The grief and let down hit her hard. Cat sobbed and sobbed, seeming to release a month’s worth of pent up feelings all in one go. We tried to offer comfort. We provided reassurances and gently tried to direct her towards activities that usually aided her at times like this. She would have none of it. Instead, she made a very firm, concise request. “Do not talk to me. I do not want you to say any words to me.” She had communicated a clear boundary, so we immediately complied. We stopped talking to her, leaving her to her grief. We focused our attention on unpacking our bags and preparing for the next day’s activities, while she sat down nearby and just cried.
I had begun feeding and watering the animals when she moved past this solo crying stage and approached me. She said nothing at first, just walked up to me, looking up at my face with brimming eyes and tear-stained cheeks. I didn’t say anything, but put my arms out, wordlessly offering to hold her. She threw her arms around me and buried her face in my shoulder. She began sobbing in earnest again, and I sat down with her and just held her as tight as I could. She clung to me like her life depended on it. Eventually, her crying slowed and we just sat together. After a few quiet moments had passed, I decided that perhaps she was ready to hear words once again. I started with a simple observation. “No matter how wonderful or magical or amazing something is, eventually it comes to an end and we have to go home.” She nodded, almost violently. Yes. Those were the words she needed. And then she looked at me and asked an intense question. “But why?” I wrapped my arms around her and answered truthfully. “I don’t know. It just seems to be how our world works, and sometimes it is very, very sad.”
She didn’t need an explanation. If I had tried to answer her with some sort of logic, eventually we would have made our way back to the same burning question. “But why?” And truly, I don’t have an answer. Things end. I don’t know why. And sometimes it’s very very sad. But I knew something that she has not quite yet come to understand. Grief ends, too. And the fastest way to the end is straight through the heart of the deepest and most painful feelings. So I sat with her, I felt with her. I provided a bit of empathy and validation. I stayed with her in her grief and exhaustion until she was ready to move forward.
And just like that, she was through the seemingly endless tunnel of grief that had consumed her. She jumped up and offered to help me care for our animals. She unpacked a few of her Christmas gifts and proceeded to investigate them at length. She relaxed back into a more normal evening routine than she’d had since well before our holiday travels. At peace, ready for what was next.