Grief is a funny thing. Sometimes you’re able to anticipate the blow, and other times, it hits you in the gut out of nowhere, leaving you gasping for breath.

Holidays come and go and a grieving heart can brace itself for feelings that are certain to come bubbling to the surface.

I lost my momma on a Wednesday afternoon in April.

She had been admitted to the hospital for a procedure that had become familiar to her during her time spent battling endometrial cancer. A procedure we were certain was just going to be routine and that she’d be sent home in a day’s time.

I had only been at work for a few hours before I got the text from Dad: “The doctor has advised the family to gather; Mom has been transferred to the ICU.” My pulse quickened and my mind blurred as I fumbled for my keys and rushed to the hospital, not certain what I would find when I got there.

It was her birthday. As her birthday approached, we would ask her what she wanted. She’d joke with half a smile that made her tired eyes squint and say, “A cure for cancer.”

Her chemo treatments left her with little to no energy and profound nausea. She chose to shave her chestnut brown hair off in December last year when it began falling out shortly after she started treatments. She asked me to be there when her hairdresser offered to cut her hair in the comfort of her own home.

Her friends comforted her with ideas of wigs and scarves to cover her bald head but wigs were expensive, scarves made her sweat, and she was one of the few who actually looked good without her adorning, wavy locks (even if she didn’t think so).

She always looked good.

She hardly went anywhere without getting made up. Hair curled, makeup donewouldn’t even run to Walmart with anything less. She had good reason though: she knew about half of the people in our little city. We could hardly go anywhere without adoring children running up to her or waving with cheesy grins from afar when they recognized their beloved “Mrs. April.”

Though there were tears, I was humbled to watch her handle losing her hair with such bravery. She handled herself with poise and grace as she smiled through it even though she felt anything but happy. If it were possible, she looked even more beautiful to me at that moment as her hair fell in clumps to the floor around her.

Without her hair, her eyes were accentuated. Her big brown eyes that lit up when I walked into the room. She had the habit of making me feel like the most important person in the world in those moments. A feeling my dad and siblings have in common. A sight I was always eager to come home to when I spent my college years in a different state. A sight I ache for now.

Her eyes characterized her trademark sassiness. Her eyes always told you just how she was feeling. And in her final weeks on earth, she was tired.

Tired of not feeling like herself. Tired of pain, nausea, doctor visits, and needles. Tired of the chemo treatments and pills, tired of how unfair the complication of cancer made her life. Just tired.

When my family met my dad at the hospital, we waited for what felt like an eternity just to see her. When we were finally ushered through the doors of the ICU, a young doctor told us what to expect. The room was filled with tear-stained faces and echoing sniffles. The sounds of our hearts breaking caused the doctor to cry.

My sweet momma got her birthday wish.

Grief is a funny thing. You can expect the twinkle of Christmas lights to seem a bit dull and the excitement of the season not to make an appearance.

You’ll still dig out all the trimmings and put up the dusty decorations for the kids’ sake, but your heart isn’t in it. You’re just going through the motions.

You can expect the impending holiday to awaken feelings you don’t want to confront, but you don’t expect to be left in a puddle of tears by a Coldplay song about a breakup. 

I don’t go a day or even an hour without thinking of her.

I once heard that when your heart is grieving a loved one, it searches for them in everything around you. And suddenly the unpredictability of my grieving heart made sense.

Christmas will feel different without her loving attention to detail and carefully picked stocking stuffers. There won’t be a “Merry Christmas to my Christmas baby” text to wake up to on Christmas morning or the following texts anxious to know when we’d be on our way to her house.

This year we unpacked boxes upon boxes of Christmas trinkets and my mom’s beloved snowman collection. My dad selected the perfect tree, and we decorated it together with generations of ornaments. We shared smiles as we recalled our favorite ornaments and the memories behind them. My siblings and I made jokes to distract from the obvious heaviness of the moment. Dad placed the angel on the top of the tree and busied himself with making sure it stood proudly and worked properly.

After all the trappings were properly in their places, we were still painfully aware of a glaring absence and an emptiness in our hearts this world will never satisfy.

But the thing is, it was never meant to.

Christmas was Momma’s favorite time of year. She was giddy with childlike expectation for Christmas morning. She loved the lights, the music, the bright décor, the snow (which she sorely missed when we moved to FL), and the birth of our Savior. And she instilled the love for the season in all of us. Her joy was contagious joy.

And even though I’m hurting, I can feel a small stirring in my spirit reminding me of the miracle of Christmas joy.

It’s in the look of wonder on my children’s faces as they admire our tree, it’s in their voices when they sing the songs of the season.

It’s in the spirit of giving, it’s in a stranger’s kindness.

It’s in the pregnant hope of meeting our Savior.

My momma taught us the miracle of joy at Christmastime.

And it didn’t die with her.

Those Christmas lights
Light up the street.
Maybe they’ll bring her back to me,
Then all my troubles will be gone.
Oh, Christmas lights, keep shining on.
“Christmas Lights” by Coldplay

Previously published on the author’s blog

Losing a parent is a unique pain. Healing after the Loss of Your Mother is a heartfelt guide for those mourning the loss of their mother, as well as the loved ones helping them through their grief. Want to get started right now? Find it on Kindle, too.

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Amber Watson

I am a foster and adoptive mother from the sunny state of Florida. I am married and have two children and two dogs. I am a preschool teacher for a teen parent program at a high school and I love what I do. I am a lover of the creative arts and find myself most at peace among the work of our Creator.