Holidays are hard for an orphan

"I never went to Europe," my mother, Christine Ayn Pfeuffer, sighed while in a Percocet daze. "And I can never have sex again."

It was a Thursday night, two weeks before her 38-year-old body conceded its brief battle with lung cancer. I was a senior in high school.

For years, I made the mistake of not talking about my mother's death. Most people don't like to discuss the upsetting parts of life; it confuses their daydreams.

Fast-forward to 2011, when my dad died on Father's Day. It's hard enough to lose one parent at a young age, but to have your dad die on the day you're supposed to pay tribute to him is some kind of sc***ed-up kismet. Although we'd been estranged for years, I was gobsmacked. Bernhard James Pfeuffer fell asleep and never woke up. He died in peace, much how I'd like to go when it's time.

At the same age my mother was when she died, I became an orphan. "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," Joan Didion writes in her memoir, The Year Of Magical Thinking. If I've learnt anything in the years since my parents' deaths, it's that grief does not like to be contained. The pain hits in waves, knocking me off my feet some days, ebbing away on others.

My calendar is riddled with reminders to mourn, celebrate and pay respects to my parents. Holidays are especially challenging.

Nov 8 is the anniversary of my mother's death. It kicks off six weeks until the winter holidays are safely behind me and I can land on my two feet in a shiny new year.

For years, I'd try to compartmentalise my grief and keep this intense period of hurt to myself. To those on the outside, I seemed like a perfectly functioning person, but internally, I was struggling.

My silence led to isolation, then loneliness, which I tried to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol and men. Even when I was trying so hard to put on a happy face, I dug myself into a deep, defective hole during the so-called merriest time of the year. Since then, I've developed better coping techniques.

There is no right or wrong way to process grief - it's a highly personal experience. As soon as I gave myself permission to deal with it however I wanted, I felt more at peace with my scars and my losses.

Now I choose to tell the raw, messy truth. I talk openly about my grief and have found support in unsuspecting places. I've stopped making excuses; instead I tell friends, relatives and colleagues why I'm skipping their holiday parties and why I haven't given a holiday gift in two decades. The things that serve as symbols of celebration for others are events filled with sadness for me.

I refuse to feel shame about skipping these holiday traditions."Time heals all" is a meaningless condolence I've heard ad nauseam for decades. Ditto for "You'll be okay". I am mostly okay 101/2 months out of the year.

I'm not the only one who operates in seasonal survival mode. If you're uncomfortable hearing about why I'm not celebrating, in most cases, a simple "I don't know what to say" will suffice. Or chocolate. Chocolate always makes things better.

The key to healing, I've found, seems to be self-compassion. During the holidays, I take extra measures to be kind to myself. I love more, forgive more, exercise more, volunteer more.

I go to the ocean whenever possible; water always brings me calm and clarity. I cut myself some slack. I surround myself with people I care about and ask for help when I need it.

If for those six dreaded weeks I simply manage to pay my bills, that's good enough. Some years are better than others, but the emptiness of being an orphan never fades.

When I feel alone, I find solace in knowing that my collective losses may have diminished me at times, but they didn't destroy me.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Holidays are hard for an orphan'. Subscribe