Grief & loss

How My Christmas Tree Became My Grief Counselor

You know that holiday advice for the broken-of-heart: create new traditions? It doesn’t really work for newly separated co-parents, like Tracie and me, who are trying to follow a different piece of advice: keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible.

For our children’s sake, Tracie and I have decided to stay true to several holiday traditions this year, like decorating a family Christmas tree, together.

I’ll be honest: I was dreading it.

Tracie and I have co-decorated fourteen Christmas trees. We have collected enough ornaments to fill two, thirty-gallon storage tubs. I can tell you the story behind each snowman, can-can dancing frog (yes, really), drag queen tropical fish (uh huh), and kid-made art project.


“At first I was afraid. I was petrified . . . “



Yes, a can-can dancing frog.

Usually, I love unpacking our ornaments, lifting story after story out of the boxes. But this year: ouch.

For me a Christmas tree has never been as much about décor as it has been about ritual and personal history.

Here’s an example of the ritual part, excerpted from my memoir, Love Song for Baby X, a window back into 2002, when Tracie and I were trying to grow a family:

[D]ecorating the Christmas tree becomes impromptu ritual, each ornament casting a spell, calling baby toward us: for welcoming, the tiny stocking we bought; for protection, a corn husk angel; for fertility, wheat woven into a Celtic knot; a carved wood heart for love; two gold doves for peace. Tracie plugs the lights in, and we curl up on the couch, breathing in the wish the tree has become.

And here’s an example of the personal history part. In the year following that baby-wish tree, I suffered three miscarriages. Then December 2003 rolled around, and this:

Decorating this year’s Christmas tree, I couldn’t help but think of the ritual we had made out of last year’s—how each ornament we hung felt like an invitation for our future child to enter our home. This year, kneeling on the hardwood floor under our scotch pine, reaching into a tissue-paper-filled storage box, my finger hooked a loop of ribbon and pulled out the miniature, embroidered stocking we had bought in honor of our baby-to-be. I laid the stocking across my palm and outlined the tree-shaped green stitching with my fingertip. I looked up at Tracie stringing lights around the branches above me. She didn’t notice; I chose not to say anything. I stood up and hung the stocking on the back of the tree, out of view.

The baby we had been wishing for back then—he’s now ten years old, and his equally-wished-for younger brother is eight, and whether I was ready for it or not, they both expected a family Christmas tree this year.

So I armored myself against the Pandora’s Box Effect and snapped the lids off those thirty-gallon storage tubs.

I handled Christmas Tree 2014 in very much the same way I had handled my encounter with that tiny stocking during The Year of Miscarriages: I contained my feelings.

I laced lights around the tree. I took pictures of the kids. I smiled at them and listened as they oooed and aaahed and giggled over the ornaments. And for a while there, I held a silence so large and deep it felt like a physical presence inside me.

In hindsight, I realize I didn’t look Tracie in the eye much while we were decorating, except when I saw her holding in one hand the glass house our real estate agent had given us the year we bought our first home, and in the other hand that tiny red stocking. Then I made eye contact. I exhaled a long breath. I nodded. I took the ornaments from her hands and hung them on the tree. I contained my feelings.



For three days, I contained.

I plugged the tree lights in each morning. I watered the tree each afternoon. I unplugged the lights each night, never once letting myself look, really look at the tree.

And then, after (yet another) break-through moment in a yoga class, I realized that “containing” was taking a toll: tight muscles, cranky disposition, bitter thoughts.

It was time to make friends with the tree.

So for the past couple days, each morning and evening, I have spent some time sitting near the tree, letting it tell me the stories: not just the tiny stocking and the glass house, but the fancy ornaments from the years when Tracie and I used to browse through shops on Castro Street, and the handful of “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments gifted to us by friends, and the Celtic harp from our family trip to Ireland, and all those handmade ornaments tracking our boys’ evolution from babies to toddlers to kids.

And now, though I can’t say I actively enjoy cohabitating with this tree, I can say I recognize the opportunities it brings: to let grief flow through, to acknowledge what I’ve lost, to feel gratitude for what I’ve had, and to experience the truth of this moment, instead of getting stuck in denial or avoidance or fear.

Maybe I’m even developing a bit of an affinity for this tree, as one does for a caring therapist who continually, gently invites one to notice her feelings, no matter how uncomfortable those feelings might be.

But today, I decided the tree was missing something: an ornament for 2014.

So I bought a new one, a clear glass globe with an image painstakingly painted on the inside, in reverse layers: a white dove, flying across a clear blue sky, carrying an olive branch in her beak.

Merry Christmas 2014

Merry Christmas 2014




Photo Credit: Cheryl Dumesnil

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  1. Alison Blair says:

    Beautifully written. This makes me think of the first Christmas after my parents separated. My dad came over and we spent a few hours as a family, opening presents and hanging out. It must have been very uncomfortable for my parents but it was really comforting to us kids.

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