Happy-ish Holidays! Healing Happens

Walt Disney World, ALS

Ben and I with Santa (We know him!) in 2007, pre-ALS

It’s Christmas Day and the first day of Chanukah. I send you good wishes. NYC is pretty at this time of year. We’ve only had a bit of snow, though it got messy and ugly pretty quickly. I saw a couple of store window displays, but was not really feeling enthusiastic, and I did not visit the Rockefeller Center tree. Given its proximity to Trump Tower, I do not think I feel like dealing with the chaos. Since I put up my tree and Chanukah display right after Thanksgiving, I’ve had time to conjure some spirit. I don’t pressure myself to engage in holiday cheer, but I also try very hard not to dwell-at least for long- in sadness or let myself feel obligated to visibly show grief.  But every step I take forward comes with the risk of a setback and difficult emotions (click here for prior post).  This time, that setback came when it was time to decide on a holiday card.

For many years I’ve hand-made a card that’s usually featured a family pet.  In general, I make more of a New Year’s card, to avoid family conflict over my love of Christmas when we celebrate Chanukah. Last year, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a card at all, or if it was even “appropriate.”  It was only four months since Ben had been gone.  I most definitely was not feeling very cheerful.  At the same time, having lost my dad in 2014, and then Ben in 2015, I kind of wanted to welcome a new year, though my track record of bad years made me wary of much optimism.

I missed Ben terribly and I wanted people to keep him in their hearts. In grief, he certainly took center stage in my feelings. I decided to create a tribute card with some of our favorite pictures from Walt Disney World, where Ben looked so happy, even as his ALS had progressed. It felt like the right thing to do.  Disney was also very, very okay with not having to wear a Santa hat or reindeer antlers, though, oddly, she does like her Mickey Mouse pajamas! The only song that resonated with me was “Auld Lang Syne.” I was still pretty much in shock and exhaustion over the loss, and the notion of remembering loves and lives lost but not forgotten, was a comforting and peaceful sentiment.  It suggests keeping our loved ones with us in a spiritual way that, to me, is very beautiful, if also bittersweet.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne! – Robert Burns

ALS, Disney,Grief

Holiday Card 2015
A Loving Tribute to Ben

I shared the card with old friends and new ones, with people who had known Ben for years and saw the changes as the ALS progressed, and with our Facebook friends and acquaintances, some who did not really know Ben, or know him well. I felt then, and I feel now, that it is important to share with people what ALS is and does to a person, even though a photograph only conveys some of the physical manifestations of the disease.

As this year’s holiday season approached, I was not sure how I felt about making a card to welcome 2017.  Although so much of what I do still includes photos of Ben, and he is with me in all that I do, I did not feel that I should make another tribute card. Likewise, I did not want to make a card that shouted gleeful holiday spirit that I simply do not feel. I do like to take this time of year to reach out to people to extend holiday greetings and let them know I am thinking of them and I wish them well. I think that my internal debate about whether to make a card and what it should be helped me realize that creating my cards has become an important tradition to me.

For a few years I had toyed with the idea of doing an “It’s a Small World,” card. It started when Ben gave me some of the It’s a Small World singing dolls for Christmas. I never got to make this card while Ben was still here and I decided to give it a go this year. Disney was very cooperative and I did get a cute picture. I feel that the lyrics to the song were very appropriate for welcoming a new year. Given the current political climate, it seemed especially timely.

It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hope, and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a Small World after all. – The Sherman Brothers

I chose some of our favorite photos from the attraction to border the center picture of Disney and friends by the tree. I enjoy playing around with Photoshop, so I enjoyed the project of making the card. I felt sort of guilty, and sad, for making a card that did not formally acknowledge Ben. When I began to sign the cards, I felt doubly sad to write only “Love, Abby and Disney.” However, I did have to chuckle as I remembered how Ben joked that he was honored that I signed his name before Disney’s!

Walt Disney World, It's a Small World, Grief,ALS

Holiday Card 2016

I wrote to some people to explain that It’s a Small World was a favorite attraction of ours, and my favorite song, and that the card featured some of our most loved pictures from the ride, as well as the dolls that Ben gave me. As I wrote this explanation, I realized that whether or not his name or picture is on the card, Ben is a huge part of it. These are our photos, our memories, and his spirit and thoughts of him are right there in the card. He remains in my heart in so many ways and is with me in the less festive moments when I need comfort, but I do believe that he is also with me as I welcome this new year.  For that matter, so are my dad, my mom and my grandma.

As I think back to last year’s holiday season, I can honestly say that I could not have made this year’s card last year. The holiday season arrived too soon after losing Ben.  It was all too raw and I only wanted to share how much he was missed and how vibrant he was, even with ALS. Over the past sixteen months I have had much time to reflect. I also participated in support groups that helped me sort through feelings and emotions and brought new friends into my life. This blog has been another outlet of working through grief and the caregiving experience. When I’m feeling bad, I feel as if I have not healed, but reflecting on things like this year’s card, I realize that healing happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.

I always seek to honor and celebrate Ben, and I’m sure I always will. Some people feel uncomfortable mentioning him, or they feel that if I talk about him that I am dwelling in the past and/or grieving too long. On the contrary, I like to know that people remember and think of him and I am happy to hear their memories. There is still sadness, but I also allow myself to enjoy more and more good times in the present, as I make new, good memories.


Our last family Christmas/Chanukah, 2014. We got matching Mickey and Friends pajamas- even Disney! (She liked the pajamas, but not the picture-taking!)

I have begun to take steps forward to reshape my life and let in the light, and that also feels good and right, even if my paces are somewhat awkward and unsteady and I fall backwards at times. Sometimes I react to memories or to present life and thoughts of the future with tears and anxiety, at times I ask for help and support, and sometimes I smile with cautious optimism and the feeling that my loved ones are watching over me. I react on my own terms, as anyone in grief must be allowed to do. It’s all healing and it’s all okay.

Wishing you and yours happy, healthy, peaceful and healing holidays!



‘Tis the Season to be Emotional


Our last family Christmas/Chanukah, 2014. We got matching Mickey and Friends pajamas- even Disney! (She liked the pajamas, but not the picture-taking!)

Thanksgiving has come and gone. My second Thanksgiving spent without Ben. My second holiday season now begun without Ben. I’m sad to say that I’m finding this year to be getting off to a very rocky start. I wasn’t expecting that. I guess I also wasn’t expecting to feel worse the day after the first anniversary of Ben’s “leaving,” as he would say (click here to read that post), so I guess I need to abandon my expectations.  Grief. If only it came with an instruction manual. I understand some of it, and can predict and gear up for bad days like anniversaries of various events.  But, when I’m unprepared, the sadness really shakes me.

I am grateful for so much, including having wonderful friends who include me with their families. But, I think that last year I went through motions and was either sad, numb, distracted, or any combination of those feelings. This year, I took the time to think about what I would like to do over the long holiday weekend, and I chose to decorate my apartment for the holidays and to get together with friends.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, and I’ve lost my parents, closest relatives, and Ben. My aunt Eleanor has Alzheimer’s disease, and although she seems to recognize me as familiar and we relate very much as we always did, I’ve lost her, too. My friends are my family, and I am so fortunate for that, but it’s also been a harsh reality and an adjustment. I think it’s also part of the process of grief, and of life.

Last year, I set up the sparkly pink and silver tree that Ben got me a few years ago, when a real tree and the lights became too much to deal with, given his caregiving needs and our limited space. Ben always left decorating the tree to me, because he said he’d never seen anyone get so excited about decorating a tree. But, he would occasionally chime in on where he thought ornaments should be placed. I missed him while I was decorating, but I missed him no matter what I was doing. I didn’t get any new ornaments and kept everything as it had always been. I even put his favorite ornaments in the same places on the tree, where he was able to see them from his desk. I remember that the tree did not bring me a lot of joy, but it didn’t make me especially sad either. I was struggling with so many emotions at that time that the holidays were just one more emotional episode to add to my list.


Ben loved Sully (top right). The high-four balloon had symbolism (see my birthday post). The French girl from It’s a Small World was also a favorite- ooo la la!

This year, although I miss having a real tree, I felt like I wanted to keep the pink one again because it was a gift from Ben. I expected to set it up on Thanksgiving with our ornaments, most of which are from Walt Disney World. Last winter and spring, I repainted, recarpeted and got some new furniture and I was actually looking forward to seeing my holiday decorations in my “new” setting. It didn’t turn out to be the positive experience I thought it would be. Instead, I’m feeling down and defeated because decorating has been a laborious and sad process. The bride and groom Mickey and Minnie ornaments that we got when we became engaged just reminded me of a happily ever after that didn’t happen as planned. On the other hand, I still love to look at the photo ornaments that we had made after each trip. I can see the way he changed over the 6 years that his ALS progressed, and yet I also feel so grateful that we could make those trips after his diagnosis and that we are so happy in each photo. And, I remember how we pored through photos to pick the ones that would become ornaments.

ALS, grief, Christmas,Disney

It’s a Small World (my favorite song!) at the top and to the left of our photo ornament is the Hawaiian girl from that attraction- we loved her.

Again, I placed his favorite ornaments on the tree where he would have been able to see them from his desk. It’s where they belong.  I did get some new ornaments in London. I thought they would be nice, new additions to reflect a favorite place and new things in my life. But, when I placed them on the tree, I immediately felt that they didn’t belong. They interfere with my memory of what is still, in my mind, our tree.  My tree is a wonderful visual representation of my life- the wonderful memories of times with Ben meshed with the addition of new memories I’ve created as I’ve taken my first baby steps on a new path. By including my visit to London, which was a big step for me (click here for that post) I’ve also shown that I’ve made progress in my grief and my life. However, I did not anticipate that I would also see a jarring clash of past and present. I spent so much time trying to keep things the same- even continuing to arrange things for Ben the way I used to- but things are not the same. The beautiful ornaments that I found in London change what I seem to want to keep frozen in time, as if Ben is still here. I did not realize that until I saw all the ornaments hanging on the tree.


Disney ornaments, one of our photo ornaments, one from Liberty and one from Harrod’s in London. There’s also a Schnauzer I got with Ben- I grew up with Schnauzers.

This year, I feel sharply the pain and the loss, while I’ve also accepted that I need to shape a life. It’s a difficult balance, and maybe that’s why this year is harder. I have heard that sometimes the second year is harder but I don’t think there is a steadfast rule. That’s the problem with grief. There is not a one size fits all way to experience it. Last year everything was a mess. This year, just as I felt I’ve made some progress in adjusting to life, I was caught off-guard with tears and loneliness when I was doing something I looked forward to doing.

ALS, grief, Christmas, Disney

Ben’s little Disney fiber optic tree. It was always on the corner of his desk. I got a new table, but I still keep the tree in the same place.

I wrote this blog post because I thought that sharing my own experience might help other people in grief and struggling with not knowing how to handle the holidays or where they belong. Maybe you can relate or maybe this is not your experience. I do think that part of grief is accepting that there are going to be good and bad days. I am grateful that I do have more good days now. My very whimsical tree still shouts a love of Ben and our memories and love of Disney. I have faith that as the season progresses and I continue to adjust to my tree, and, beyond the holidays, my life, that I will find a balance that respects my memories and traditions but also welcomes new ones.

Feel free to share your experiences or ideas or advice in the comments section below.