Christmas Joy, Christmas grief

Coping with the loss of a loved one during the holidays

By now, I’m usually humming along every time I hear “Carol of the Bells” and looking forward to watching my favorite Christmas movie. No, it’s not “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s Ice Cube’s “Friday After Next.”

Yes, “Friday After Next” is a Christmas movie, and it has been my favorite since it debuted in 2002. I watch it, wrap gifts and laugh. I laugh, though the holidays can be painful.

For a few weeks now, tears have randomly filled my eyes. Memories of my parents who died long ago, and a friend who died more recently, have assailed me. A movie reel of my childhood Christmases plays in my mind. Flashes of laughter. Warmth. My mother is baking and giving my sister and I each a spoonful of frosting. My father is sitting in his favorite chair. Christmas gifts spill out onto the dining room floor from underneath the tree. I am truly a child in those moments. Worry free. Full of wonder. Grief is unknown to me.

“Hark! How the bells. Sweet silver bells. All seem to say. Throw cares away.”

That verse from “Carol of the Bells” hearkens back to happy Christmases. But, the idyllic scene playing in my thoughts soon fades – taking Mom, who died in 2005, and Dad, who died in 1994, with it.

Altered holiday traditions. People missing from around the table. Sorrow amid holiday lights.

One of my earliest childhood friends, Patricia Knox, died on Nov. 4, 2021. Another Christmas looms without her. Grief has no expiration date. There’s no right or wrong way to experience it. It comes and goes at will. Like my tears.

Every Christmas, my sister brings out my mom’s old sugar cookie recipe, written on an index card. We’ll gather soon and invariably reminisce while she bakes the Christmas cookies. We’ll laugh about how, the night before Christmas, we set out milk and chocolate chip cookies for Santa, while unbeknownst to us, our parents assembled our toys and wrapped our gifts.

Christmas joy, Christmas grief.

This column is reprinted from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons license. Dana James is the founder of Black Iowa News. A former Des Moines Register reporter, James also publishes a monthly column in Little Village Mag Des Moines, “The Fractured State of Iowa Nice.” She is vice president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists.