Grey Matters: Keeping loved ones in our hearts during the holidays



I remember walking through Chinook Centre in South Calgary one long-ago Christmas. The mall would have been festively decked out and bustling with shoppers, but I was oblivious to everything but my dad. The mall’s PA system was playing Silver Bells and Dad, to my extreme mortification, was belting out the words right along with it. He sang so loudly I was convinced his voice reached every shopper in the mall.

Almost 50 years later, I remember my teenage horror — lessened only because we were far away from our own neighbourhood and were unlikely to see anyone I knew. What a difference a few decades make. Now that he’s gone, dead these past 15 years, I miss his joyful exuberance. It is particularly at Christmas I feel his loss.

My memories aren’t universally positive. Our strengths in excess become our weaknesses and Dad certainly had his flaws. His wit could draw blood as well as laughter. The passion and enthusiasm that marked a good day, on a bad one became an angry mocking temper.

So, while I mourn his loss, I also mourn the loss of the relationship we will never have, a relationship tempered by age where the differences of opinion that turned many a conversation into a spat became less divisive, while warmth and deep affection remained.

As the holidays unfold I feel joy in the rituals that set this season apart: the trees, the music, the lights, the time with friends and family, the chocolate. Yet amid the joy, I mourn my dad’s premature death and the loss of others who also died too soon.

Other cultures do a better job at dealing with loss. I was recently in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, which is actually a three-day festival. People visit the grave sites of loved ones lost where they talk, eat, drink and remember loved ones who have died.

For those who are newly bereft, the holiday season can be a wrenching time. Singing and celebrations seem an affront to the open wound of our loss. Familiar rituals seem empty without our loved one’s presence.

We can take heart. As long as we remember our loved ones, they live on in us. A reminder of who we’ve lost can help us deal with their absence. Some families choose to remember with a physical reminder, an empty chair at the feast. Others will pause for a moment of silence, or create a space and time to share memories. Others can take comfort from the voice of their loved one that continues on in their heads, an auditory reminder of times past.

By carving out a space for grief we take away its power to consume us. We are the lucky ones who are still here. As we hold tight to our past memories, we must also allow room for joy, laughter and behaviour that will mortify our children.

Very best wishes for a happy holiday to all Grey Matters readers. I will be back on Jan. 9.


Grey Matters is a weekly column by Wanda Morris, the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health-care for Canadians as we age. Missed a week? Past columns by Wanda and other key CARP contributors can be found at