Adobe Stock | Andriy Blokhin
Writer Rachel Lee Garofolo shares how she’s turning grief into a gift and taking things one milestone at a time this holiday season.
Monday, December 19, 2011, started like any other day. Then, as I was getting ready for work, I received a call from my father: “I can’t find Mom.”
The night before, I had left my parents’ house with quick kisses goodbye to both my mother and father. Something had made me stop and think, You should kiss Mom one more time. I’m thankful I did. The next morning, she was murdered.
I felt the loss of my mother especially hard during the holiday season. Around the world, families were celebrating together. Not knowing what had just happened to Mom, I felt angry as I watched people carrying on living their lives.
People consolingly said that Mom was in our hearts, but I didn’t want her there; I wanted her to pick up the phone when I called or to give me a hug me when I needed it. I had a huge hole in my heart where she once was.
Grief never goes away. It’s an ocean that ebbs and flows and has waves that threaten to take you under. It’s an expression of love and a personal and ongoing process. There’s no correct, one-size-fits-all way to mourn. Everyone grieves differently.
There are many ways of coping with the passing of a loved one. Many people lean on friends and family. Some go to bereavement support groups or grief counseling. Others, like me, numb their emotions by abusing alcohol or other substances.
I brace myself for [painful] milestones, like her birthday or the anniversary of her death. I stay busy—visiting her grave, reaching out to loved ones, watching movies or reading under a cozy blanket. I allow myself to cry, but I know if I were wallowing in sadness constantly, Mom would’ve affectionately told me to “shut up already!”
By accepting her death and being grateful that she was in my life—and through a great deal of personal work—I can now celebrate her every day by remaining clean and sober. I focus on being the best version of myself I can be. I’m not perfect, but she wouldn’t want that.
With acceptance, I find that I don’t need to constantly evoke the loss my family endured or recall the violent manner in which she was taken from us. Memories of her quirky dancing or her razor-sharp wit are slowly replacing my sadness.
Now and then, thoughts of what could have occurred creep in, and I have a good cry. But I try not to focus on that fact that she’s not alive anymore—I keep in mind that she once was.
A Jewish proverb states, “The gift of grief is that it presents us with the opportunity to heal and grow.” I’ve had 10 years to consider how to bring meaning to my life. Am I making myself happy without hurting anyone? Am I practicing gratitude for the things I have? Am I moving forward and not looking back?
During the holidays, my sister Timi and I make a few of Mom’s favorite recipes. My family and I reminisce about past holidays spent together; these stories bring tears to our eyes, some from laughing and others from missing her. Hanukkah candles are lit on a menorah gifted by my Mom to remind us of the bright light that she once was. A wish for a bright new year is one way to look past our loss to living a life filled with happiness. We honor her by including a cardinal ornament on our Christmas tree; red was my mother’s favorite color, and they fly freely, perhaps like Mom is doing. I acknowledge that she’s no longer here. The hole in my heart is slowly being mended by joy, love and peace, as new memories are made. I reflect upon the blessing she was to my family. I’m not closing the door on her memory, I’m inviting hope in.