Simplify to Heal: Minimalism and Grief


I was able to spend last week focused on spending time with my family since my oldest daughter had the week off from school. I decided that rather than try to squeeze blogging into an already overflowing week, I would rather focus on enjoying my time with the kids. We rounded the week out with a really simple, lovely Thanksgiving meal.

In spite of taking the time away from writing, my brain has been working overtime, thinking about this holiday season, how Celiac disease has impacted it and how minimalism has changed what the holidays look like for me.

This is my most vulnerable time of year, in terms of being tempted to abandon the pursuit of less. I am, like anyone else, influenced by the beautiful, clever and prolific marketing that is selling more than just objects: these marketers are selling a lifestyle.

There is something about all of it that makes me nostalgic for my childhood and the magical Christmases that I enjoyed. It also fuels the anxiety I feel to try to create magical Christmases for my own children. There is so much I can say about these topics, and I will in the coming weeks, but there is another reason that the holidays are such a vulnerable time for me, and I want to talk about that, since I suspect that I am not alone and this topic is often left under-discussed.

The holiday season in 2007 was when the landscape of Christmas changed completely for me. I was diagnosed with Celiac disease just before Canadian Thanksgiving (my very new baby and I were living in back in Canada while my husband was deployed) and my mother died only a few weeks after that. It was only 10 months earlier that my grandmother (my mom’s mom) had also died. It wasn’t until after their death that year that I realized just how much those two women created my sense of the holiday season.

The Christmas season has never been the same ever since.

I went from being the child who enjoyed the magic created for me to being the mother who had absolutely no idea how to create that magic for my own child. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and grief. I lost the most important women in my life and, as silly as it may sound, I lost those comforting seasonal foods that were traditions in my family and helped give me that sense of connection to my women.

This time of year has been largely the same for me ever since: feeling anxious and lost.  The exceptions being the two Christmases spent with our little son.

He was born on December 5th, 2009 after a very difficult pregnancy. For having been through such a rough pregnancy, his birth was almost magical in its simplicity. He was born full term at home, with only myself, my husband, our beloved midwife and her assistant there. It was a very quick birth in the morning after a full night of good sleep, so he was able to meet his big sister soon after birth and we enjoyed a long day of snuggling in bed and just soaking up his beautiful new baby preciousness.

After his birth that morning, the snow that fell from the sky was incredible – the most beautiful, fat, fluffy of perfect snowflakes. It started to fall shortly after he was born and didn’t stop for a very long time.

Thankfully, in anticipation of his imminent arrival, we had ventured out the night before to buy our Christmas tree, so there was nowhere that we needed to go in all of that wild and beautiful snow. We decorated the tree the day after he was born.

That Christmas was full of the gratitude and joy that comes from feeling like your life is full of everything that you could ever want and need. It was an enormous relief to me after two years of very difficult Christmases.

I could never have, in that moment, imagined what the next two Christmases would be like. The second Christmas with our son was also filled with gratitude: gratitude that his scans showed no evidence of disease; gratitude to be living in a new place that felt healthier for us; gratitude that we were together. But it was also darkened by that anxiety that comes when you are exhausted and stretched too thin trying to keep the pieces of your life together when your child has cancer.

The following Christmas was our first without our son.

His cancer had come back and ended his life all in the space of mere months. He died in the late spring and was buried back home in Canada, closer to my mother.

That Christmas – the first one after his death – I pushed to fill the holiday season with everything that I could to try to cope with his loss. I directed a musical church service that I put together and for which I arranged music, ran rehearsals and into which I poured my soul. I sang in a large local choir, including in their small ensemble adding extra rehearsals and music-learning time to my life. I baked, I went caroling (which I have never before done or since) – bought towers of gifts for our surviving child and a few tokens for the one who wouldn’t be there to open them Christmas morning.

On Christmas day I came apart at the seams.

The thing that I had been trying with all my might to outrun had caught up to me, tore me to pieces and left utter destruction in its wake.

That thing was grief.

That Christmas was the lowest I ever got. It was the very, very worst. The Christmas that I filled to overflowing with stuff and commitments and people and food and decorations – that Christmas left me emotionally, mentally and spiritually destitute.

In retrospect, even though the concept of minimalism was still over a year off from being seriously on my radar, that was when I began to take everything apart and eliminate what I finally realized was no longer serving me in my life.

Faced with overwhelming grief, minimalism became my path through it.

I have never met another person who doesn’t carry some kind of grief with them – some acknowledged and known, some carefully hidden and protected, but everyone carries grief. It is a force that cannot ultimately be ignored, outrun or silenced by society’s desperate pleas that anything messy just disappear. You cannot buy enough things to cover it; you cannot schedule your days and weeks and years to edge it out; eventually it will leak into every seam in your life until you drown.

However: if you can take everything out of its way – if you can remove the objects that keep you from having to relive the memories; if you can resist over-scheduling; if you will invite it to come sit next to you and let it wash over you when it comes, you will find that it will also go. And over time, as you make room in your life for grief to come, wash over you, and then go, you will notice that it has a cleansing and healing effect.

Grief itself is not something to overcome or get over. As I’ve heard referenced before, grief reflects the depth of our love. We often talk about love lasting forever and yet in the same breath seem to believe that grief is, and should be, limited. We dedicate our lives to creating physical and mental clutter to crowd it out and then convince ourselves that we were correct to do so, especially when we chance to meet someone else who is in a very active place of struggle with their grief and it makes us uncomfortable.

The reality that we’ve crowded out though, is that if we have buried our grief completely, we’ve also buried the tender part of ourselves where the love lives.

Inevitably, when I give myself space and time to think about my son, regardless of whether it is prompted out of love or out of grief, the other emotion also surfaces. It is the same as my mother and my grandmother. They are sides of the same coin, and both emotions need space.

So this holiday season I am reminding myself to embrace the simple life that I live the rest of the year. I am reminding myself that minimalism will not rob me or my family of the magic I desire this season; minimalism will allow it space to appear. Making room for the grief that I inevitably feel as I miss these important people and celebrate them in simple ways is part of the magic of the season.

I am convinced as I look back that the magic that I felt as a child was a result of love and relationships – not a result of the baking or decorations or activities – because I cannot separate my memories of those things and those moments from the people with whom they were shared. With a less crowded life, there is room for those memories and love, and the grief that comes along with them.


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