When lost loved ones are still with us at the holidays

red berries in focus on a winter branch

By Mary Janevic

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that the boundary between this world and the next is more like one of those 1970s hanging bead curtains than a wall. Part of us goes with them. And as we saw in Disney’s Coco, our loved ones periodically make the trip back over to visit us. The time of year my mom chooses to hang out with us is the holiday season.

Not that she isn’t around at other times. She always seems to be somewhere in the background, keeping an eye on everything. It’s been like this since she died almost 15 years ago.

But this time of year? She’s practically brought her suitcase with her. She loved the holidays, she adored spending them with family, and nothing is going to stop her from being part of our celebrations.

She helps decorate the tree. We pull ornaments from boxes labeled in her loopy cursive, giving our tree the same homespun look hers always had. Who would have thought the popsicle-stick reindeer I made in elementary school would still be around (albeit missing one googly eye)? But my mom kept it, and so on the tree it goes.

She’s behind the cookie selection. Pale green mint meringues and chocolate-kiss thumbprints and fudge made with marshmallow creme. The meringue recipe is on an ancient print-out of an email she sent when I first started making family favorites on my own. A comfort food doesn’t get any more comforting than when the recipe ends with “Love, Mom.”

She puts words in my mouth, in the Holiday Edition of I-sound-just-like-my-mother. Is that me warning the kids they won’t get everything on their lists this year, trying to pre-empt disappointment? Because it sure sounds like something she would say.

I hear her voice in mine as we sing her favorite carols—Away in a Manager, Silent Night—when our family gathers to play music on Christmas Eve. These songs require a vocal range that she didn’t actually have, and neither do I. That doesn’t stop us.

And she is undeniably present in the room as the kids and I cuddle up on the sofa and watch the lights blink on the tree, cozy in the dark. That’s the only way to explain that for a brief moment I feel as content and safe as when I was a child, curled up with my mom in exactly the same way on a long-ago December evening.

For many holiday seasons after my mom died, it was awful not to have her with us. I could only notice all the ways she was gone. But with time, I’ve started to look at things in a different way. And I’ve started finding her in everything we do. Because, if there’s one thing I know about my mom, it’s that there’s no way she would miss Christmas.

Mary Janevic is a health researcher and mom of three tweens/teens. They live in Michigan, which during the holiday season often looks like the inside of a snow globe. 

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