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What It’s Like To Celebrate The Holidays After Losing A Loved One

I remember New Year’s Eve in 2018 like it was yesterday. My family had just left India, where we ran a free medical camp through our non-profit organization, SaDilKa Foundation, at a destitute hospital in Gujarat. My parents saved hundreds of lives through their surgical operations. We celebrated NYE in our beautiful hotel in Vietnam, which hosted a rooftop party overlooking Ho Chi Minh City. This was supposed to be my family’s time to relax and celebrate the success of our incredibly rewarding mission trip.

We should have been happy. I actually remember being happy for a few minutes as everyone on the rooftop began screaming the New Year countdown out loud… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I smiled with joy, the live band started playing upbeat music, my family clinked our champagne glasses, and my mom then said, “I can’t believe I have to enter this year without a son. How can we move onto a new year without him?”

My joy immediately dissipated (if it was ever truly there to begin with). My mom began to cry again, after more than three highly successful (and highly rare) hours of not crying. This meant I would be up for hours trying to console her. Meanwhile, my dad looked like a ghost of who he once was. In fact, he was so out of it that he proceeded to completely spill his drink on the man dancing next to him just as 2019 officially began in Ho Chi Minh. To make matters worse, that man got mad at my father. It broke my heart. I felt like when I lost my brother, I lost my dad too, and I couldn’t stand the sight of anyone causing him even more pain.

I knew there was no way I could lose my composure, as much as I wanted to just go to bed and cry myself to sleep. My sister, eight years younger than me, looked up to me as a role model. I needed, for her and for myself, to be the calm in the emotional storm that was my family. So, I tried my best to lighten the mood. I even got us all to dance a little. Inside, though, I felt broken all over again.

And this is how my family celebrated New Year’s Eve on the year that my brother died.

I had so many questions at the time. Would my mother ever go a full day without crying again? We lost my brother in June, so it had already been over half a year since he had passed. But I nearly forgot what her laugh even sounded like. Would my dad ever look at me again, rather than through me as if I didn’t exist? Would I ever hear another one of his unbelievably lame dad jokes come out of his mouth? I promised myself that if he ever cracked another dad joke, I would not roll my eyes at him. Would my parents ever stop praying that my brother comes back, or worse yet, that they could join him in heaven as soon as possible? I was doing everything I possibly could to keep my parents happy, and I knew that. I was proud of myself for that. But I kept asking myself, Was I doing enough to keep my sister happy, especially with her living alone with my parents in NY (since I was living in Boston at the time)? Sometimes, I even let myself think about what my own future would look like. Would I ever one day feel comfortable enough to cry in front of another human, or would I always be alone with my tears? Would I ever be able to sleep through the night again without being constantly awoken by nightmares of the day my brother died?

Would my family ever feel happiness again, especially around the holidays? Or would it always be like this, where pretending the holidays did not exist was far less painful than trying to “celebrate”? Because celebrating the holidays simply meant letting our hearts get broken by memories, and crying ourselves to sleep at night.

Memories, I realized, can kill you while you’re still alive. This is the one thing nobody can really tell you about grief. You simply have to go through it to comprehend the gravity of the matter. Because after you lose people who were once the most significant part of your life, everything reminds you of them. Just when you think you have finally, for one glorious moment, escaped the pain of remembering, the next song that comes up on shuffle from your playlist is 100 Years by Five for Fighting, and the waterworks start all over again because your brother never made it to 100 years. In fact, the lead singer even mentions he’s “22 for a moment,” and that’s when you have to skip the song in its entirety, because your brother died at 22. Eventually, the pain of listening renders most of your songs intolerable, and you suddenly find yourself deleting your entire Music Library to start anew. The grief is simply too unbearable.

The good news is, holidays get easier. Life gets easier. The happiness comes back stronger than ever, at least if we put in the effort.

The bad news is, to make it to the other side, you have to go through the stages. And the stages will put every ounce of your sanity and your strength to the test. The stages will tear you apart from the inside out; they will require you to hold back your tears at all costs when you are asked about your brother during medical school interviews, to smile at strangers when all you want to do is cry; they will require you to silently mask your sadness in the hope that your parents will one day stop crying. The stages will require you to wake up and go to work or school when you suddenly lose all motivation to leave your bed. There will be times during the stages when you wonder if life is even worth living anymore. Because how could it be, when your biggest supporter and role model is no longer with you, at least not in physical form? There may also be points during the stages where you pray that life does not have to last much longer for you.

But when you make it to the other side, holy damn. Life becomes the most beautiful thing in the world. And the god-awful stages become so fucking worth it. Suddenly, getting up early to watch the sunrise means getting to witness your brother as he brilliantly explodes the sky with the most heart-achingly gorgeous palette of colors, just as he did on the day he died. One day, you go from being too depressed to wake up in the morning to nearly jumping out of bed with enthusiasm because you have a huge list of things to do and so little time. Deep down, you know that the best way you can honor your lost ones is by living life to the fullest so they can experience life vicariously through you. One day, you go from isolating yourself from the world, to becoming a passionate lover and hardcore risk-taker, because you know that life is short and you don’t want to waste another second of it doing things that don’t leave you breathless and madly in love with life. You love hard and deep, and you let your heart become vulnerable—because, after going through the stages, your heart can no longer be broken again. You already went through hell and back a thousand times over, and nothing and no one can ever make you go back to that dark, dark place. Especially not with your loved one watching over you, rooting for you, living life through you.

So here we are now. My family and I. It’s Christmas 2020. We’re looking at photo albums of my brother, and the only tears we shed are blissful ones, tears that drip onto our lips wetting the laughter pouring from our hearts, as we recount memories of the good ol’ days. We take turns telling stories, grinning from ear to ear. We are happier than ever, and we bleed our love onto everyone we touch. And my brother? He is more with us now than ever. He never truly left. My family just had to learn how to open our hearts again.

My hope for you is that you never stop pouring your love onto the people you cherish most in life. Because nothing and no one lasts forever.

About the author
I'm a medical student who has had pizza in 40 countries (& counting!) Follow Sarina on Instagram or read more articles from Sarina on Thought Catalog.

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