Before and after- prepositional phrases usually utilized to indicate when an event took place. Useful in indicating passage of time.
Words that find themselves frequently used in the English language, small and seemingly insignificant, lost among the eloquent and more grandiose words; yet, vital just the same.
Words that have never had a profound effect upon my life until six months ago. In the world of traumatic loss and grieving, life is seemingly defined as “before,” “the event/loss,” and “after.” When writing those three categories, it seems fairly easy. Each part of your life becomes neatly tucked into one of those three categories. If all the events of your life become tucked into categories, and there are no loose ends, everything will be okay. Well, that’s just simply wrong. Yes, chronologically, I can place events into the one of the three categories: “before J’s death,” “the time spent in the hospital,” and “after J’s death.” Chronological is simple. Every event in our lives will chronologically fit into one of these categories, and because each event will fit, we sometimes give the impression that we are continuing on with our lives in a normal fashion.
Chronologically placing the events into a category is what I like to call “head knowledge.” When we can attach a date to an event, our brain automatically places the events into chronological order. Before J’s death, my memories seemed to be organized chronologically. Meaning, memories before a certain milestone in our lives didn’t really hold more significance emotionally, than a memory after a specific milestone. Maybe you are different, but in the grand scheme of things, I relived my memories chronologically. After J passed, everything changed. Instead of each event fitting neatly into a category, lines began to blur.
As I sit and reflect on last Christmas- the traditions, the memories, and the love, I can logically tell you “those were before J passed.” Traditions of J putting together toys while he and I drank hot chocolate out of the snowman and penguin mugs we bought our first Christmas together. J eating the cookies, and writing C a special note from Santa. J griping about the coordinating pajama bottoms and shirts that I forced us each to wear. Opening our gifts together Christmas Eve, just the two of us, so that Christmas morning could be about C. J letting the dog onto the front porch so that he could have a special treat of all the reindeer food. Opening one sentimental “mushy” card and one funny one from J. If it were left to J, I would have only received the funny one. That’s the man he was, but after the first Christmas, it became established that both were necessary. Traditions that chronologically fit into the “before J passed” category.
The problem is our “heart knowledge” blurs the chronological lines, and it causes us to have difficulty placing a tradition or a favorite memory into the “before J passed” category. I don’t want to place an event there. I don’t want to even believe that category exists some days. I want to erase it, hide it, banish it into oblivion. And because I want to obliterate the category altogether, reliving the memories that fit into the “before” category are extremely bittersweet. Placing a much loved Christmas tradition into the “before” category feels like re-living “the event” all over again. The fears, anger, resentment, sadness, anxiety all flood back in. And this happens when I least expect it. It can be caused by a song, a random Christmas sack you begin to wrap a present in, only to realize someone has written J’s name in marker on the outside. It can be caused by wrapping a gift, and thinking, “wow J would have had ‘fun’ putting that one together.” And, I find myself not ready for those moments. My mind isn’t guarded, and sadness comes flooding in. And so, when trying to place memories and traditions into categories, I find myself torn. Placing a tradition into the “before” category feels as if I’m burying it too….
If I force a tradition into the “before” category, it is more than likely because the tradition is impossible to continue because of “the event.” People offer all kinds of advice. “Continue on with all of your traditions, make J a part of Christmas still.” Well, that creates a problem. You see, in a 5 year old’s mind, daddy is in heaven, and he can’t physically be a part of our traditions. “Create brand new traditions, and leave the old ones.” Well, that feels like a betrayal all together! And, so I find myself wondering what in the world will we do for traditions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? How will I find a balance of the before and after? How will I ensure J’s memory and his personality ring through into C’s world?
The “afters” often feel like betrayals. They feel “too soon,” “cold” and “uninviting.” They lack J’s physical presence- his laugh, his smile, his crazy hats he would make out of wrapping paper. J made Christmas fun. There is no J to help create the “afters.” There’s my memory of him, my stories I share, and my attempts to incorporate him, but there is no him. And so, creating the “afters” is hard work. It is something that I’ve been working on for well over a month. I have no way of knowing how C will react without his daddy on Christmas. In fact, I have no way of knowing how I will even react. In therapy they say, “create new memories while incorporating old traditions.” How does one do that when every single tradition had J all wrapped neatly into it? Tearing apart a tradition is almost like tearing apart a neatly wrapped gift. Try as you might, the wrapping paper never goes back together the same way again. How do I continue to honor the traditions, when a vital part of them is missing?
And, again, people have advice, and all mean well, but the reality is a tradition from “before,” rarely fits into “the after” in the same way. When a tradition from “before” merges with a tradition formed in the “after,” it brings with it a void. It never appears or feels the same, and by bringing along its void, it in some way seems to tarnish the traditions of “after.” The difference is, I control how much it tarnishes the after.
And so, as I sit writing, when I should be cleaning my house in preparation for Christmas, I am stuck. I’m rarely one to just “wing it,” but it seems as if this might be the case this Christmas. Creating “afters” is a necessity. One I wish I never had to contemplate more less experience. Creating new traditions, requires me to continually remind myself that I’m not betraying J. (Yes, I still suffer from self-imposed guilt). But, ultimately, creating “afters” is the only way to continue to move forward. To continue to walk, even at a slow pace in this marathon I’m running. Right now, it feels like a marathon ran during a hurricane, but the reality is, the “afters” are in my control. And, so we will begin the process of merging “befores” with “afters.” And in the end, we will make it through. We’ll keep walking, and new beautiful memories will be made. I’ll never escape how the “befores” tarnish the “afters.” The bitter sweetness of “before” memories are treasured in my mind, but as we approach Christmas, it becomes even more clear that in the end, the traditions we celebrate are important, and serve their place. But the celebration of Christmas is more than just about family traditions.
In the end, celebrating the birth of our Savior and His choice to walk among the flesh has no tie to “before,” or “after.” It is a welcomed event that thankfully fits into neither category. And because of its continual presence and its inability to fit into a “before” or “after,” I am blessed. Because our Savior chose to walk among the flesh, I am able to be comforted by him “before losing J,” and “after losing him.” Christ is my one and only constant that doesn’t need to fit into either category. His choice to walk among us and to be born into the flesh and to be crucified and risen again is what allows me to have peace. As new traditions are made, He calms my heart and reminds me that I’m not betraying J. As I merge old traditions into the new, He creates in me an ability to remember, cherish, but still move forward. He is why I am able to keep walking.
At the end of the day, it is comforting to know that Jesus understands the human feelings of loss, as He was once human, but that because of His resurrection, He is able to provide us comfort no human ever could. I am thankful for that “O Holy Night,” when He chose to become flesh. That night is my affirmation that I can live through this first Christmas “after” we lost J.
Tonight I am thankful for that “O Holy Night,” and for the “younder [that] breaks [and brings with it] a new and glorious morn!”
After reading this, I ask that you say a special prayer tonight. This year would have been the first year in over 60 years that line of duty deaths were kept under 100. Sadly, the number 100 was reached today. Pray not only for these 100 families who are stuck in the limbo of before and after, but for all families who are spending their first Christmas without a loved one. Above all, pray that they too will realize that the birth and resurrection of our Savior fits into neither the “before” or “after,” and that they will allow Him to bring them comfort and reassurance in this difficult time. Please pray that they too recognize the significance of that “Holy Night”.