By Katie Kohls
As my friend and I were going through our closets one day looking at what we could donate, I pulled out my black lace dress. She admired it, and asked why I had never worn it. I told her it was my funeral dress. She looked confused and said, “I don’t have a dress just for funerals,” and I responded that I was glad she didn’t. The dress that I was holding was originally intended to be my Christmas dress to wear to family parties and Christmas mass, but it had become my go-to funeral dress for three consecutive years. Intended for a joyous occasion, it quickly became the one I ignored because of the painful memories it contained.
It had seen the funeral of my uncle who died from cancer, my grandfather’s unexpected one, and then my grandmother’s which marked the end of years of pain. Three years in a row. I started to wonder whether my teachers thought I was making up all these deaths to get out of class. I wish I would have been. But no, obliged to attend, I had to look into my heartbroken aunt’s eyes, be witness to my father’s tears, and hold my great-grandmother’s hands as she cried for the loss of her daughter. I mourned as well, but witnessing the grief of those around me broke my heart anew. That Christmas dress that was supposed to see happiness and love, instead it saw pain, grief, and loss of love.
I couldn’t bring myself to give away that dress. And as we approach the holiday season, I look at that dress still in my closet and I think of all of my loved ones that I won’t get to see this year. Grandparents are lacking, aunts and uncles are widows and widowers, cousins’ places are missing, and happiness falters when we feel those absences. And there are those around me missing parents and siblings. This time of year is supposed to be filled with joy and holiday spirit, but a bittersweetness pervades it as I get older.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love this time of year and getting to spend it with the family I do have, but I’ve realized that I don’t have to act happy through all of it. It is ok if I am not ok. And it’s ok for those around me to not be happy. It’s ok for you to not be happy through all of it. I know I’m not alone in my grief so why do we try to hide it? Why do we all feel obligated to put on a smiling face and positive demeanor when all we want (and sometimes need) is to share in our sadness? At least I’ve been told to not mention the dead, because we’re supposed to be celebrating. But our families have lost the same people we have, have felt the same pain, and need to grieve and remember like we do.
Now I’d advise against insisting upon grieving or being a Debby downer the entire holiday. But grieve when you need to, don’t be ashamed of your pain, and share the joy and the pain with those around you. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Laugh and dance with your loved ones, but know that it is ok to cry and mourn.
As I reflect on this, I think I will finally wear that funeral dress. It may be time to make new memories in it so that it isn’t synonymous with death and pain. I won’t ignore that pain anymore, but share it, creating new bonds with those I love. It’s time for the funeral dress to become a Christmas dress again.