Nothing will reveal how your life has changed faster than a Christmas card list. It’s true. Earlier this month as I sat down to write out our cards, our life story was right there on my mailing label list.
I haven’t sent cards since Christmas of 2014–before losing Noah. And even then, it was probably a New Year or February card. (Cards are not my strong suit.) But since then, the simple act of signing names has not been something I was willing to do. And forget about taking a family photo. That hasn’t happened yet either. Both activities are reminders of the gaping hole in our family. But this year, I bought the cards and decided to see how it felt.
When I opened the list, I was shocked and sad and thankful all at the same time. Scrolling through the names I noticed just how many people were on it who we had heard from exactly zero times in the past two and half years. Those folks were not archived, or saved in some distant document to be called up later. DELETE. A third of the list, at least, had new addresses. We are military, after all. Tracking folks down is always fun and a good reminder of the love in our military community. But perhaps the most encouraging surprises were those people who are now staples in our life that weren’t on the list a couple of years ago. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?
As I reached out to people, asking for addresses, I recalled how each of them had been there for us in some way. Some had come to visit–some multiple times–in California as we grieved. Others, we had visited. Some had sent cards of encouragement or tiny gifts in the mail months after Noah died, just so we wouldn’t feel forgotten. There were those who have come into our lives since the accident, who never knew our son but have been steadfast supporters during the most difficult time in our life. Friends, colleagues, and family somehow looked different on this Christmas list. As I finalized the “new” list, I found myself feeling grateful for what was revealed: people come in and out of your life, but it’s the ones who are there when you need it most that matter.
I have no remorse for hitting the DELETE button, on cards or in life. When you lose someone, so much of your emotional energy is focused on survival that you don’t have the energy to be there for others (immediate family excluded, of course). But over time the weirdest thing happens. Life reveals true friendship. Life reveals the importance of loving relationships. In those moments when YOU can’t be a good friend, because you are exhausted, and sad, and focused on clawing your way out of darkness, that’s when your tribe carries you. They drag you out of the darkness, by the hair if necessary, and they sit with you. And if you can’t be dragged, they just climb down into the pit with you.
They don’t ask anything of you. They don’t tell you they can’t imagine. They don’t placate you with platitudes. Everything happens for a reason. He’s in a better place. You’re strong. Noah would have wanted you to [insert X thing]. Instead, they just say, “I’m sorry,” and “I’m here.” They send pizza gift cards in the mail and put cookies on your doorstep. They send flowers on Noah’s graduation day that never happened. They go to church with you. They sit on the beach with you. They stay up until four in the morning on a work trip and let you cry it out, knowing full well you both have to be up at 5 a.m.
Those people make the list. They showed up. They were present.
I sat down to write out the first card after printing my neatly organized labels and wrote,
Love, Dan, Cassie, and Gavin
I immediately felt sick to my stomach and decided not to do that again. To whoever got that first card, know you are the only one. Everyone else got,
Love, The Graingers
Christmas cards have a way of revealing what’s important. Going through the ritual this year gave me time to reflect on our lives and the people in it. Thank you to everyone who has been there for us, down in the dirt, full of ugly crying and awkward conversations. Thank you for being strong enough to show up. Thank you for saying something. Thank you for not letting us drown in our sadness. You are the definition of love.