Written by Dr. Larry
As Ellie and I take off from SFO to Kansas City to come home for Thanksgiving, I think about the holidays—and I’m going to be honest—sometimes they suck. Leaving aside crazy travel days and family drama (which could be blogs on their own, let’s be real—tis the season), I want to talk about loss and loneliness—a common aspect of holidays we don’t hear much about in the commercialized American Winter Wonderlandia.
When I was a kid, Thanksgiving and Christmas were awesome. Big family dinners, tons of presents, Gramp’s train around the Christmas tree. My favorite was playing Dirty Neighbor (card game) at the table and talking about how Grandma Burchett used to cheat like a criminal at cards. The memory bank is fill with fond recollections alone.
It wasn’t until mom died in 2001 when I was 22, that I began to understand the pain many feel during the holidays. She passed from kidney cancer just days before Thanksgiving. My god that was the worst holiday ever. My dad, sister and I still in shock at the empty chair at our table. I can’t type this without tears. Complicated by family drama during her illness and death, that was the last time we celebrated with Mom’s side of the family. We lost more than just her that year.
In the years to follow, we established new traditions, and hung together. What else can you do? Quit? Boycott Thanksgiving? Not really an option, although I can understand how avoiding it in the short term can seem like the only viable coping mechanism—that shit is just sad. Life…went on. But since this was the time of year that we all came together, it has always been a time where it is undeniable that someone is missing. And those wounds, that loss, comes to the surface again. And hurt.
Other close family and friends have been lost too. Gramps, and Grampie. My cousins Derek and Michael, Aunt Christie. More empty seats. More loss, more pain. At moments, it can feel overwhelming. Everyday in the ER, I encounter patients in their 90s—who have lost seemingly everyone important—parents, spouses, even kids. How do they do it? I have no idea. One day, one holiday, at a time, I suppose. Loss just hurts, there is no way around it.
So when everybody tells me, “Oh aren’t you so excited?” “You will have a great holiday with Ellie!” I appreciate the positivity and enthusiasm. And I am exited, hopeful to give Ellie fond holiday memories shared with loved ones—this is important to me as Daddy. But my heart always hurts for mom. And, I suspect, it always will.
So part of the holidays suck. And I’m ok with that. If it didn’t hurt, she wouldn’t have meant anything. And she will always be missed. In this way, I’ve come to understand why, for many, this time of year isn’t their favorite.
But there’s another aspect to the pain of the holidays that I have come to feel oh so intimately as well—loneliness. 361 days of the year, I am happy to be single. Ok, more like 320, but most of the time, I’m more than content to not be married. And then there’s the holidays. With their gift giving and ice skating, and hand holding and all that shit. And the movie Love Actually. Just an all-out assault on us poor single bastards in America. Get out your winter coats, kids—the loneliness front is moving in.
In the ER, I see a whole other level of lonely pain. I’ve witnessed people die, when nobody else seems to notice. When there is no funeral or obituary. No friends or family to notify. It is as if—nobody cares. This hasn’t just happened once. There are many people in the world who are true loners. Addiction, mental illness, disability, and just disconnection.
Many of them show up in the medical system more often around the holidays. Disguised with various medical complaints, often, they just want someone to talk to. A human connection at a time when the rest of the world is surrounded by loved ones—and seemingly happy.
In my ripe old age, with some life experience of loss and loneliness, I’m much more capable of connecting with these folks around the holidays. To attend more just to their need for human connection. Somehow it helps me, to heal, too.
Anyways, it might benefit us to be aware that the holidays aren’t great-amazing-wonderful for everyone in the world. Many carry the pains of loss and loneliness. Both can be fertile ground on which to connect on a real human level.
For myself, it helps to pause, reflect on this, and acknowledge loss and loneliness as part of my holiday experience. But I want to conclude with gratitude—I’m thankful I had a loving mother I miss. I’m so lucky to have a healthy little shorty to give special holiday memories to (we’re starting off at Chuck E Cheese with the cousins—dear god, saying my “Hail Cheri’s” in advance). It’s more real, more human. And in the end, I think makes for a better holiday season—for everyone.