On December 21st, the winter solstice, 2006, stockings were hung by the chimney with the greatest of care. I decided during that first Christmas season without our darling baby boy to decorate the house as if it were his first Christmas in our new home, just as if he were here to celebrate with us. He died on February 20, 2006 of a rare brain tumor. His first Christmas, 2005, he was here, we were together, but he was dying. That first Christmas, we were beyond sadness, living moment to moment, caring for his every need, not knowing how long it would be until he took his last breath, but knowing he would not live to see his birthday in May.
I don’t know what made me want to go all out with the decorations that year—I haven’t done it again since—but planning and decorating the entire house was a good distraction. It was painful yes, but it was also a creative act, which felt good. Making beauty where there was only pain felt like a good use of my energy and time. I still avoided the regular Christmas cheer though, I put the ornaments on the tree while watching Cujo and had a huge breakdown crying fit when Tad, the little boy in the movie stops breathing. I was crying and begging for him to live, terrified for his mother, even though I’d seen it before and knew that, in the film version, he does in fact, live. For the first time I could remember, I was exceedingly glad of Hollywood’s insistence on a happy ending. I just couldn’t stand it if that little fictional boy had died that day.
The last thing I did after finishing the tree and hanging wreaths and placing candlesticks in windowsills and lighting lights was the hanging of the stockings. Theo had a sweet felt stocking with a teddy bear sewn onto it, made by his great grandmother, Jamie’s grandmother, before she died. I hung Theo’s stocking last, next to our stockings, and then sat down to admire the finished, newly decorated living room. I do love the glow of the lights on the tree. In the silence, I gazed around the room. And in the stillness, the thoughts, and the grief, as they always do, began to rise.
Looking at his stocking, hanging there, empty, flat, with nothing in it, I thought of the coming Christmas morning and what it would be like to see his stocking remain empty on that day. Thoughts of putting things in the stocking and then opening it ourselves was heartbreakingly sad. Thoughts of leaving it empty and knowing that emptiness would continue to stretch into all future Christmases to come brought more waves of pain. Ten months into my new life of grief, a bare drop into a lifetime to come of mourning my beloved son in so many different ways, I thought I was rather used to the new and ever varied kinds of pain. Yet each time some fresh hell of a previously unimagined hurt swept through my heart and mind it was a brand new surprise. The empty stocking, hanging there, somehow full of every possible torture of all holidays to come without our child, was an indescribably original kind of gut-wrenching.
Suddenly inspired, I jumped up, ran up the stairs and sent off this quick email to friends and family:
“Sorry this is kind of late--I just thought of it. We have a stocking hung for Theo (made by his great-grandmother, Jamie's grandmother) with a pretty dragonfly pin on it. I got really sad thinking that there will be nothing to put into his stocking for Christmas. And all of a sudden I thought of something really nice that all of you could do to help give Theo a present. And to help us feel a little better on Christmas. Sometime between now and Christmas, do something nice for someone, no matter how small or large, it doesn't have to involve money--just commit a random act of kindness. When you do it, think of Theo and dedicate that act to him and his sweet spirit.”
Now, 10 years later, the feelings surrounding Christmas are still very painful. Things are different, as things continue to be. It isn’t as important to me that people do things to help me feel better, or even that people other than us are thinking of Theo—though it is always a beautiful thing when I know that others are thinking of and remembering him. The acts of kindness are more about the pure acts themselves than about me or Jamie or even Theo. And this is really how Karma yoga, service to others, evolves over time. When we start out doing things for others, it is almost always self-motivated, and the more we persist, doing, loving, serving, the more it becomes simply about the works themselves. Serving others, releasing attachments to the outcome.
From the chapter on Karma yoga from my recent book Yoga for Grief and Loss:
Teachers instruct that in performing Karma yoga we are to offer our actions to God, to the Universe, or to humanity. The ultimate goal is to allow our work to be transformed into purely selfless service to others. In grief, as in life, this is much easier said than done. However, when actions come from a place of love, whether the act is selfless, self-motivated, or driven by the desire for our beloveds to be remembered and known, the love itself can direct the outcome. When love drives the action, our personal motivation ceases to matter as much. Swami Vivekenanda taught in a series of weekly lectures given freely in his New York apartment in 1896, “We have to begin from the beginning, to take up works as they come to us and slowly make ourselves more unselfish every day. We must do the work and find out the motive, the power that prompts us; and, almost without exception, in the first years we shall find that our motives are always selfish. But gradually this selfishness will melt by persistence, till at last will come the time when we shall be able to do really unselfish work.”
I know that all the acts of kindness performed by so many who are remembering Theo, their own children and other loved ones who have died, all come from a place of love, and when this is the case, that love is directing the outcome.
Please feel free to take this idea and commit acts of kindness in memory of your beloveds and in the name of love and service. In doing this, we all get a little closer to perfect peace. Even for just a moment, which sometimes can last a lifetime.
I continue to pray, as I did that December 21st, 2006, that all of us will be struck by inspiration, that something will come to each of us, some kindness that we can share of ourselves, to benefit someone else. And that action will result in the fruits of love.
If you wish, email either of us your acts of kindness and we will put them here in this space rather than in the physical space of his stocking. Incidentally, we keep those slips of paper printed with the original kindnesses in his stocking year after year and read them every Christmas. Our family sends love and wishes of peace to all of you and yours this season. You can also comment in the blog.