Author Kirsten West Savali and her father
Author Kirsten West Savali and her father. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten West Savali)

My father loved the holidays, especially Christmas.

He would pull out a long, yellow legal pad and make lists weeks in advance so that all of our favorite dishes  – my brothers’, my sister’s and mine – were accounted for and requests were sent out to Ms. Geneva, the best dessert baker this side of the Mississippi.

Our home had a revolving door. Friends past and new would marvel at the perfectly laid out pastry table by the front door, designed down to the crumb by Daddy. One of our favorite uncles, Uncle L.D. would take the train in from Chicago, bringing laughter and naughty Christmas songs – Jack Frost nipping at your hmmmmm – and reminding us for the 100th time that when he came to visit us, he had special pants because he always left at least five pound bigger than he arrived.

Smelling of winter air, pine needles, burning firewood, apples and cinnamon, with The Temptations Christmas album on repeat, our home was lights and gifts, garlands and laughter, warmth and mistletoe.  Family and love.

And at the center of it all, was my father with a twinkle in his eyes that could rival St. Nick’s – whom by the way, in our home, slid down the chimney expecting Dr. Pepper and gumbo, not milk and cookies. It took us years to figure out why.

I still remember vividly, my younger brother and I peering over the balcony to the tree below on Christmas Eve, wondering if our special gifts were under the tree.  We knew we were supposed to be asleep, but if anyone was going to catch Santa, we were. Every year we waited up without a sign of him and Christmas morning never failed to bring gifts that hadn’t been there just hours before.

It wasn’t until years later, that I was let in on the secret that Daddy was hiding the presents in storage next door, and he waited every year until we went to sleep before he quietly brought them into the house so we would be surprised. Still, operating on zero hours of sleep, he made breakfast and enjoyed our excitement as if he was living vicariously through us.

The years turned swiftly like pages flipping in a notebook. There we are, Daddy and me, playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano, or me sitting close beside him as he played and sang the “Duke of Earl.” There he is standing at the window of his bedroom waiting anxiously for me to turn into the driveway after driving 8 hours from Clark Atlanta University late at night. There he and my husband are trying – and failing – to put together our son’s first rocking horse. There they are again in the kitchen, Daddy teaching him all of his chef secrets. There he is laughing his contagious laugh, with our second son on his chest, holding the remote control Jaguar car I bought him, because struggling writers can’t afford the real thing.

And here I am this Christmas – without him.

My father passed away on October 18, 2011. Last year, the holidays weren’t so bad, because I was still numb. It didn’t matter if it was Christmas or Tuesday, he was gone and that’s all that mattered. His birthday, which is December 21, was more difficult; but this year, every moment that we prepare for Christmas is like a weight on my chest because he lit up the holidays as no one else could. Though I try to be upbeat for our children and make this time of year as memorable as my father did for me, there is this void that simply cannot be filled. The silence is so very loud and the air throbs with his absence.

As I struggled to just be “okay,” it occurred to me that there are many others who may be facing similar losses. This compelled me to share a list of things I’m doing to get through the season.

1. Make your lost loved one a part of the holidays.

Even though your loved one may not be here physically, he or she can be here in spirit if you let them. Sing their favorite song, cook their favorite dish or bake their favorite dessert. You don’t have to tuck them away on a shelf as a memory — let them live on through you. Making sure they are a part of the festivities can help to ease the pain.

2. Cry.

If you need to cry, then do it. Don’t feel like you’re ruining the holiday. Don’t let anyone make you feel selfish. The holidays are difficult enough without you having to bottle in your emotions. If you have small children, as I do, take a moment to yourself if you don’t want them to see you cry. But do it for your mental and emotional health.

3. Be understanding if someone says the wrong thing.

Not everyone is an expert on grief. When people say, “I know exactly how you feel; I lost my _____ four years ago,” or, “Think of all the good times,” they are honestly trying to comfort you. Accept their condolences in the spirit in which they are offered.

And last, but certainly not least:

4. Don’t feel guilty for feeling happy.

It’s ok to smile, laugh and have a good time. Though you will always mourn your loved one, there comes a point when you will have a genuinely happy moment. Embrace it. Imagine them smiling with you. Parents in particular sacrifice so that we can be happy. The best way to honor them is to seek joy and share it with them.

I am by no means saying that any of these things will be easy to do. Death shifts our world on its axis and we are forced to find a new normal — especially during the holidays when the emotional presence of our loved ones may be particularly strong. Just remember that grief is a very intimate process. There is no right or wrong way to get through it; the important thing is that you do – knowing your loved one will be right beside you every step of the way.

Happy holidays from my family to yours.

Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.