Inside My Head

That caustic dread inside your head
Will never help you out
Lou Reed, “Magic and Loss”

The other night Natalie said, “You hate the holidays.” “Why do you always say that?” I asked her. “I don’t hate the holidays. I like them a lot. I like the feeling of them. I mean, I’m uncomfortable about Philip. But I like to get people presents. Really. I’m at the point where I like to give presents more than I like to get them.”

Where do I start?

Uncomfortable” about Philip?? That’s what I’m reduced to saying when I talk to Natalie about anything concerning Philip. She can’t take my grief, even though for a long time now I’ve not made it particularly visible to her. I give her a lot of attention, and I make sure she knows I love her. But any mention of Philip is a centripetal force, drawing her ever more inward and away from me.   And it’s especially hard that I can’t speak easily about Philip to her during this Season of Celebration. This second Christmas without him, I’m feeling defeated because nothing’s going to make him come home and what the fuck am I supposed to “do” with what I’m feeling?

Every year Natalie tells me I hate the holidays. And I do remember one year complaining about all the time, work and energy the holidays required because I was the one doing it all. That must’ve left a real impression on her because she’s turned it into my “thing” when it’s not at all any kind of “thing.”

But it’s forced me to think about the holidays, what they are, what they’ve been. When I look at Christmas Past, I think something was left out, some part of me wasn’t there. What I did best was buy the right presents, because to me, they were expressions of love. It was the act of giving that moved me. I wrapped them up, then typed their names on the gift tags because when I was in second grade, I realized there was no Santa when I recognized my dad’s handwriting on the tags. And I was terribly impressed with myself for figuring that out.

To slow down the process of tearing into the presents it took hours to wrap, I’d put little poems on each tag that described the gift. Philip and Natalie took turns reading each one, and had to guess what their gift was before they opened it. And I remember one year I got my husband a bike and hid it in the basement. On Christmas morning, there was an envelope under the tree for him that had directions for what he had to do next. The kids and I had written down clues on pieces of paper, then we hid them all over the house, each clue directing him to the next until he was finally directed to the basement where it didn’t take him long to find the bike under the tarp that was hiding it.

Sounds good, right? But even though I remember those things, I also remember something felt wrong. I loved a tree-lit, garland-filled home, but not what it took to get there. The tension of decorating, the way kids would help but they really didn’t want to. It was supposed to be Christmas Carols, hot cocoa and stringing popcorn. Or something all red and gold and warm. But this is how it really was: Every year, a couple weeks before Christmas, my parents would come to help decorate. Wind up was I’d be the one helping while my mom was directing. She was fast and irritable and if she wasn’t decorating she was cleaning and that can sound like gee, wish my mom was like that, I’d invite her over more often, but it wasn’t that way. My mom would take over and I’d let her, then resort to sullen, resentful 12-year-old behavior to deal with it.

But what did I know? Sullen-and-resentful was the norm around my mom, who was a walking whirlwind of anger. She couldn’t help herself – and who’s to say that if I was born and raised the way she was, if I had her exact life, I wouldn’t be the same way? I was the one that had to wake up, who had to stop behaving like my mom could send me to my room and take away my toys while she was at it. But I didn’t get it. For all the 30+ years of therapy and binders filled with email conversations with Ed about this, I didn’t get it. So as much as I hated the tension and rushing of the day, I didn’t know how to make it the way I wanted it to be. I was sure I was doing it wrong and ashamed and sorry that my kids were stuck with me.

Sound a little caustic?

And now – now I do stress-free Christmas. My tree is up and my presents are wrapped. They’re not ribboned and bowed yet, but this snowstorm that’s just beginning will be the perfect time to do that. Next week I’ll make cookies, cakes and chocolate mousse, like I always do. And I’ll continue to  alternate between crying and flatlining because my kid is dead and it looks like everyone’s celebrating.

Which I know isn’t true, mostly because of you all.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


38 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lenwilliamscarver
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 12:11:00

    You have described my life precisely with my daughters, specifically how your daughter ‘reminds’ you of your hating Christmas, mine reminds me of several things I have said in a moment as if it is the proverbial wisdom of the century. As for missing your loved one…no one talks to/with me about my daughter. No one knows my hurt, aloneness or depth of my grief, I often wonder how they cope because for me it is the depth of my soul that has been pirced and left with a gaping bleeding hole, even at nearly three years. My heart goes out to you and I am glad you are able to express the feelings we all have.HUGS


    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 21:36:08

      And mine to you. I was thinking on Thanksgiving how we’re all going about our turkey-and-cranberry business (well, tofurky for me and my daughter) and I’m sick inside and I want to ask, “Are you thinking about him? Do you remember he’s supposed to be here with us?” I can’t talk to anyone about this; so I come to my blog and try to put words on it because if I don’t, I think I will become a mad and crazy thing.

      And I am honored that you reblogged my post. Thank you.


      • lenwilliamscarver
        Dec 15, 2013 @ 10:23:24

        I have gathered many like friends through reblogging and what you had to say was so important for others to ‘hear’. I have found through writing my daughters story over and over seems to help but I have a very hard time to bare the deep emotions, the soul tearing pain that is inside putting it on paper even on this blog is very very difficult so when you or another mother of this exclusive club we are members of (why I don’t know) writes so heart felt it really touches me …thank you Denise so very much.

  2. lenwilliamscarver
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 12:12:27

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Parallels my thoughts/life exactly!


  3. Stephanie L.
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 12:47:28

    Such a voice to my feelings about my christmas,and what I give to those around me as I strive for perfection, and deal with my own anger. Thank you for these words that touched me in a place anyoneone had yet to touch. May you find the peace to celebrate,even in the midst of loss.


    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 21:31:11

      Thank you Stephanie, thank you for your kind words and for reaching out. Anger is a killer; it has a life of its own and its usually ours that it claims. Peace and love back to you.


  4. tric
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 15:01:51

    My friend who lost her boy just two weeks ago is as you can imagine very sad. After just a few days her oldest two children aged 19 and 16 came to her and told her there was to be no dying of a broken heart, she still had three children! I laughed with her when she told me as she says “No pressure Tric, but I think they think I’ve cried enough”. It is a lifetime of grieving for her it is early days yet. I read your posts and wonder will this be her life in time to come? Mind yourself. x


    • Lucia Maya
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 16:17:02

      I just want to add that the grief and the tears may never end, and our families can get weary of the depth of our expression (or don’t want to talk about it themselves, like my younger daughter). And, some people do stop caring for themselves, and taking care of their families, and don’t even realize that the depth of their longing is so great that they do actually leave, or get sick themselves.

      I’ve had to be vigilant with my own health this past year – resting more, saying “no” more, getting acupuncture and massage, as I am aware of the vulnerability of my physical body. Perhaps her daughters were just concerned for her…?


      • tric
        Dec 15, 2013 @ 07:12:01

        I think it is so new for them to see her upset as she is such a rock usually. However that said she is very natural and open. She is great at communicating with them and telling them it is okay and normal to cry.
        At other moments she is as “normal” as ever and we can all laugh and discuss usual things as we would always have done.
        I have no fears for her. I know she is strong enough to make the long journey. She and you have a lot on common.

      • Lucia Maya
        Dec 18, 2013 @ 11:42:59

        Oh, I’m glad to hear all this!

    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 21:42:19

      Her life will be as she’s able to make it. It’s fluid; my life is fluid, a work, as they say, in progress. And I’m thinking that when a child dies and the other children see their mother in a grief that can’t begin to understand, they want to stop it because they don’t want to lose her. It’s frightening. But it’s so soon for her; give her my love and remind her that she needs to grieve the way she needs to grieve.

      Peace and love to you.


      • tric
        Dec 15, 2013 @ 07:17:11

        Thank you. I think you are spot on. Her children are afraid and rattled that she may never be the same again but she is in my opinion striking a good balance. The Christmas tree is up and she is out buying presents. She is reading a lot about grieving and finds that helpful.
        She is a naturally very strong individual and I have no doubt she can eventually be the best she can be. There is just no rush to get her there.
        Thanks for your comment. I always take great heed of what you say.

  5. Lucia Maya
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 16:08:20

    I love your Christmas traditions when your kids were young – what a beautiful and fun way to add to the gift giving! For years I’ve avoided most of the holiday stuff – it just feels fake and superficial to me, so I just don’t do it. The hardest part now at this time of year for me is birthdays – mine is Christmas eve, and Elizabeth’s is Jan 12. Having these days come and go without her is excruciating. My heart will always hurt where she’s missing.

    This year, my whole family will be together for Christmas week, which means for my birthday too, and I’m so grateful for that! Finding joy and gratitude where I can..
    much love, Lucia


    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 21:59:35

      I have my lovely little tree sparkling with lights and a few decorations around – I love it. I sit in the living room at night with no lights on but the tree and I know some peace. This is how I wanted to do it this year. I stay on the perimeter of Christmas, step in where I can make it real.

      Your birthday – what will you do? And then January 12th; Philip’s is January 20th. Then February 23rd, when he died. Then my least favorite transition, that from winter to spring. If I actually sit and think like that I will drive myself nuts. What will you do on January 12th? You know how to get to the heart of things, and you’ve a wonderfully spiritual imagination. You seem gentle with yourself. How does that happen?

      Rhetorical – no need to answer. It’s took a lifetime for you to be as you are, and I am grateful to have you around.


  6. behindthemaskofabuse
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 18:34:36

    Hugs, I’m here with at listening ear any time you need to talk about Philip. xo


  7. dragonpack
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 19:16:55

    I always did hate the holidays, for real… but Qory loved them. He loved them a lot. There were no hoops I wouldn’t jump through to witness his joy, so his joy always pulled me through when I didn’t want to even acknowledge the holidays were happening yet again. Now… I hate them more than ever before. I like how you said it… “alternating between crying and flatlining because my kid is dead and it looks like everyone is celebrating.” I relate to that, A LOT. All of it. No celebrating here my friend, just surviving.


    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 22:03:01

      What I want most is to be home. I want to be with my tree and my pictures of Philip and my books and my writing and with Natalie, who comes and goes. I want to be here for when she is. If I have to carry his death quietly, I need to rest as I do it.

      Peace to you, my friend.


  8. jmgoyder
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 19:54:58

    So terribly hard for you having to keep your grief away from Natalie.Your Christmas preparations of the past sound so wonderful (well except for your mother) and now there is this hole where Philip was – unbearable and yet you keep on keeping on. I salute you and send love.


    • Denise
      Dec 14, 2013 @ 22:08:18

      And I take that love right into my heart, where it’s sorely needed. It used to be okay with Natalie when I cried; but at some point, she must’ve thought she was going to lose me, or maybe that Philip was more important than she was. I’m speculating here, but it’s got to be scary for a kid to witness their mom out of her mind because another of her children died. Natalie is my daughter; if she needs me not to talk about Philip, then I won’t, until she’s ready.


  9. kmlagatree
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 10:45:22

    Such abiding grief. And so much beauty and generosity in everyone’s ravaged
    soul. My heart goes out to all who are suffering, especially at this “joyous” time of year. I am so honored and blessed to be sharing Christmas with you, D.


  10. Denise
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 11:08:30

    I am so looking forward to it. You’ve certainly got your share going on now, too. So we’ll talk later – love you.


  11. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 16:47:52

    Why does it have to be so painful and stressful? Are there really the happy households with the matching Christmas sweaters , hot chocolate, sparkly eyes that gaze adoring each other around the perfect flames in the fireplace.. If they exist outside of the Osmond family Christmas show, I don’t care to know. Hang in there girlfriend and if you are having a scrooge moment I am here for you.


  12. Denise
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 20:15:34

    Thank you Becki – and much love and gratitude to you for your friendship. You, too, hang in there – and remember, soon you’re outta here! Take a big, deep ocean breath for me when you get there.


  13. afichereader
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 21:29:30

    That last line really hit, Denise. This little blogging corner of the world is such a respite from the rest of it. Peace.


  14. Denise
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 22:01:20

    Amen to that; and peace to you, too.


  15. lensgirl53
    Dec 15, 2013 @ 23:59:16

    Grief is a lonely place to be even among family who do not share the same connection as a mother. It is just the plain and awful truth. I have found that I am alone in how I grieve….even on my blog which was meant to help not only myself but others. Then I remember that the grieving can hardly console one another. I am five years into sad Christmases and it still is a hurt that cannot go away. I wish I had better news for you but it would all be a lie…somehow, I think you know this. I am glad you find the same peace I find in sitting in a quiet living room with just the twinkling of Christmas lights. You are right…you are not alone, believe me.


    • Denise
      Dec 16, 2013 @ 17:17:56

      You are right that I know that; I am not going to get used to Philip being gone and I’m not ever going to feel “whole.” I think I’ll always be a little shocked, too. Today was really hard – who the hell knows why? I’ll tell you, though – much as I hate that you suffer, I thank God for you and for all I’ve connected with through my blog. I don’t know what the hell I’d do without you all. I’m lonely for my son, and you know what I mean; but I do know that I’m not alone.


  16. Susan
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 17:02:33

    No celebrating for me, I told everyone. My boys and I will be taking a trip away from the Christmas joy and lights!! I am calling it the healing trip. But I believe deep inside all three of us wanted to get away. Although my boys are sad, but they do tell me to stop crying. I stop when they are around I don’t want to upset them. I do feel alone in my journey and it is a lonely place to be.


  17. Denise
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 17:26:24

    I really think they fear grief will take you away from them, and they need you. I wrote a post about realizing that I took the risk of being a mother, and I had one child who died and one who was alive and needed me. I had a responsibility to take car of her, and I did the best I could. There’s was no way I could stop crying for months and months – but I also kept telling myself I had to be Natalie’s mother. And I thanked God for her; if I’d been left without her, I don’t know what I would’ve done.

    It is a lonely place because he is your son and no one can touch your grief. But you’re not alone, for sure. I am so lonely for Philip, and I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t come here and write about it.

    Good for you that you’re going away – and I hope you find a bit of peace when you do. Thinking of you…


  18. tersiaburger
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 14:39:04

    Oh my precious friend, how brave you are. Thinking of you in this time – as always. Hugs and warm wishes.


  19. Denise
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 19:05:47

    Tersia, your love for Vic just tears me up. I don’t know what it is, but I so get it with you two. And it hurts because it’s another suffering mother.

    I am thinking of you, too; I think of you every day, whether I’m silent or not.


  20. The Hook
    Dec 23, 2013 @ 10:55:03

    I have now read your entire blog and I want to thank you and commend you for being such a devoted mother and a wonderful soul.


  21. Denise
    Dec 24, 2013 @ 16:07:20

    And peace to you, and yours.


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