Story & photos by EMILY GURNON
CHRISTMAS HAD ALWAYS BEEN A MAGICAL TIME FOR Heidi Collingwood. [photo at right] When she was a child, her German mother organized a traditional European Christmas Eve celebration at their Eureka home each year, with the tree newly cut, decorated with lit candles, and hidden behind a white curtain until the children were allowed to see it. The family continued the tradition with Collingwood's children, eating German cookies and singing carols around the tree while daughter Kayla Wood played the piano or the violin. They made the most of Christmas Eve; Kayla would spend Christmas day with her father, Collingwood's ex-husband.
But last year was different.
On Memorial Day weekend of 2002, 12-year-old Kayla drowned while inner tubing on the Trinity River with her father's girlfriend.
Last Christmas, the first one without her, was difficult, to say the least. "I was numb," Collingwood said. "I was focusing on decorating the house, but kind of lost. It's just not the same. You go shopping for your kids and there's one that you're not going to be shopping for. Christmas Eve we didn't really do anything. We weren't that into celebrating. We tried. But it was a struggle."
A void in the heart
For many people, the holidays are a time filled not with joy and celebration but with grief, sorrow or regret. Those who have lost loved ones to death or distance feel an emptiness that cannot be filled. Families torn apart by divorce grieve for the kind of picture-perfect holiday gathering depicted in the media. Others despair when financial problems keep them from being able to provide a gift-filled holiday for their children.
For those people, holiday decorations in the stores, holiday music on the radio, endless advertisements for gifts -- all of the reminders of the season can seem oppressive and alienating, said Paula Nedelcoff, director of the Humboldt Family Service Agency, which provides reduced-cost counseling. "Madison Avenue just plays a huge mind game on people," she said. She and the other therapists see "people who are comparing themselves to exactly what the media and the marketing is telling us it's supposed to be -- this loving time, this idealized sense of love and family that lots of people don't match up to. It's so in-your-face. If you have your own issues of abandonment, inadequacy, it's going to sting even more."
Some of her clients deal with the pain by "getting caught up in the hustle-bustle of it all," because distraction can help, Nedelcoff said.
But that can be self-destructive, too -- when a parent who's just been laid off puts $1,000 on the credit cards buying gifts for his children, for instance.
Nedelcoff is one of several helping professionals who said they see an increase in the number of clients this time of year, or a greater sense of depression and anxiety among their regular clients.
"Definitely the groups do fill up during the holidays," said Rachel Davis, bereavement coordinator for Hospice of Humboldt, referring to the grief support groups the center holds year-round for those who have lost family members. "They come for support during that time. It's so much a time of merriment and people getting together that it kind of accentuates their loss, their sense of aloneness."
Losing a child, in particular, is so emotionally devastating that parents never "get over" it, and trying to celebrate amid the pain can seem impossible.
"You have an empty place in the family and at the table and one less present to buy and one less stocking to hang," said Judy Weber of Eureka, whose 33-year-old son, Jay, died seven years ago of a lung illness. "In the beginning, holidays are almost impossible, but eventually you learn to incorporate that loss into your life, because it's always there. We talk about a `new normal.' Once the pain is not as excruciating, you can begin to talk about the good memories."
Some people choose to ignore the holidays completely, to flee their familiar surroundings and spend Thanksgiving or Christmas somewhere far from where they see reminders of their loss, Davis said.
For Heidi Collingwood, 42, and her husband Bran, Kayla's stepfather, ignoring the holidays was not an option: They have two other daughters, Jenia, 6, and Anya, 8 months. [photo below left]
"In a way, we want to make sure we celebrate more, because we have two kids, and we want to make sure that we give them as much love as we can," said Bran Collingwood. "And you realize how fragile life can be."
But they don't act as if things are the same as always, Heidi Collingwood said. Pictures of Kayla are displayed throughout the house. Two large photo collages, made by Kayla's friends after her death, decorate one kitchen wall. Jenia, who was 4 1 / 2 the time of Kayla's death, often talks about her. "We don't want to shut that door," Collingwood said. "We don't want to pretend like it didn't happen or that she didn't exist in our lives. We want to celebrate her. On her birthday we bought a cake and lit the candles and sang happy birthday to her."
And Collingwood took time last Christmas for a special remembrance of Kayla.
"I was here by myself. I lit a candle for her, and I just closed my eyes, and I thought about her. And I said a little prayer."
About 20 years ago, some religious organizations began to recognize that the holidays were a painful time for many people, said the Rev. Tim Doty of First Presbyterian Church in Arcata. Some denominations hold what they call "Blue Christmas" services for those experiencing grief, loss or broken relationships. Doty said he knew of none scheduled for Humboldt County, though Sander's Funeral Home in Eureka held a "service of remembrance" earlier this month, and there is a candle lighting ceremony scheduled for Sunday for families who have lost a child (see box page 12).
Dealing with grief -- especially during the holidays -- is a difficult thing for most people in our country, Doty said. Unlike other societies, ours treats grief almost as a taboo.
"We are, as a culture, kind of in thin soup when it comes to important ceremonies or rituals that help us lament," he said. We don't wear black for two years or throw ashes on our heads or hire wailers for funerals. But traditions like those can be healing. "Grief is experiencing the weight of irretrievable loss. When we get to the point where we feel the full weight of that which will not come back, that is resolving the grief. Because it hurts. It just hurts. We feel like we won't stop crying, but we will," Doty said.
Tanya R. Hunt of Arcata [photo below left] said it was hard to start seeing the holiday decorations around town and in the stores this year. Hunt, 36, lost her mother, Bonnie Hunt, to cancer in July.
"I said I just wanted to cancel Christmas, because she was Christmas," Hunt said. "I thought, Christmas can't be here because she's not here. She always made Christmas a really, really big deal as far back as my memory goes. She loved parties. She loved the holidays. She was one of those who would start shopping in July."
Bonnie Hunt, who was 62 when she died, was also the matriarch of their large family -- she and her husband, Bob, had 13 children in their "his, hers and ours" brood. But the family remains close after her death, and that is what will get them through the pain, Tanya Hunt said.
"We're just very thankful we have each other, and none of us feel we have to go through it alone. We keep her so alive. We keep the pictures around and we talk about her. We feel her more and more spiritually each day. But we still miss her a lot physically. She was just so big. She was the center light of our family in so many ways. She was the hub, the wheel."
Hunt's father offered to take the whole family on a trip this Christmas, to get away, Hunt said. The children declined, choosing to continue the traditions the way their mother would have. "We got a big 9-footer [tree], like she would have gotten, and lights everywhere," Hunt said. And one of the children would undoubtedly buy a new Santa ornament for the tree, as their mother always did, she said. [photo below right: Hunt hangs an ornament she made for her mother]
The holidays can also be a painful time for those who have a loved one in the military, in psychiatric hospitals or in prison -- or for those who have experienced what Rev. Doty called "hidden traumas," like date rape, spousal abuse or child molestation. One member of the family may bear the pain alone, or it may be "the rhinoceros in the living room, the thing that can't be talked about," Doty said. Memories of painful times are often associated with the holidays, because they happened at holiday times or involved other family members.
Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Christmas are supposed to be such warm, hope-filled times. "But when you start scratching the surface," Doty said, "it is a particularly painful time for a lot more people than we care to admit."
At Humboldt State University, students often feel stress over the holiday homecoming -- particularly if they are going back to a family situation that is painful, such as an alcoholic father or a depressed mother, said Dr. Jennifer Sanford, a psychologist at the campus Counseling and Psychological Services center. Or, "they may be struggling with different things that they don't want to expose their family to, for example, students who are struggling with eating disorders." Gay and lesbian students may not be "out" to their parents, and may feel sad that they can't spend the holiday with their partner, Sanford added.
Whatever the difficulty, mental health professionals say the important thing is to give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, and then choose to do whatever seems comfortable to you.
"There is a mix of approaches," said Davis of Hospice of Humboldt. "Some people ignore [the holidays] altogether. Other people continue as it was, maintain the same traditions. It's an opportunity for some people to ritualize and remember" a loved one who is gone, by lighting a candle, for instance. "The biggest thing that we encourage is that people know themselves best and to do what's right for them."
Parents who can't afford gifts for their children can find free holiday concerts and arrange other special activities, such as a day at the beach. Nedelcoff of the Humboldt Family Service Center said she encourages some parents to make coupons for their children for things like playing Scrabble or watching a movie together. "Spend time with them," she said. "You really don't have to have the money. Make sure you're hugging and laughing."
And friends can help by acknowledging that times are hard. "I feel like people are really keeping their distance," said Collingwood, the mother who lost her daughter. "They just don't know how to act." The other day, she suddenly wondered what her daughter's last thoughts were. "Sometimes things just pop up that I want to talk about.
"I think I'm going to have to really feel this season through, and see how I feel this year," she said. "I feel like it's a little easier than it was last year. But I constantly think about what it would be like if she were here."
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.