I love my little town of San Luis Obispo, California, but strolling past the storefront windows decked out for the holidays brought my awareness to the thick glass that separates me from my past life.
In the years since my divorce I've done my best to keep busy during Christmas. I fled the country to volunteer with groups in Romania and Costa Rica. I moved during the holidays two years in a row and managed to keep my head down and get through it like a plough pushing aside thick memories.
But this year is different.
I'm home. It's quiet. I've barely sent out Christmas cards and haven't baked one cookie. I've felt some sadness over the loss of what was. But this year I finally realize that is normal.
I've learned that while the passage of time does decrease the overall intensity of emotions, it doesn't mean that each consecutive year gets better and better until you forget you were part of a family. We aren't robots. We are human beings, designed to have emotions and feelings.
I didn't just lose a spouse in my divorce. I lost his family and the individual relationships with each of the people in it. Divorce is a living death and can sever vital relationships in an instant while others linger and die off from malnutrition over the years of diminished contact and communication.
There is no simply, getting over it, as so many people expect you to do in the case of divorce. Why is it when someone dies we allow the bereaved to express their sadness for years after losing their loved one, but in divorce we judge them for not moving on?
This year I've come to realize I can feel both the sadness over the loss of family and reflect back fondly with gratitude for the seventeen years I had with them. I think this is what healing looks like; when you reach a point where the intense grief is softened by intentional healing and the passage of time. It's a place that is not overwhelmingly in any emotional sphere. Perhaps it is acceptance.
I did get a tree this year. I was overcome with a joyful spirit at the right time and in the right place where trees were being sold. Thankfully, at some point during the past five years I managed to get rid of the emotionally charged decorations my ex and I collected over the years like the Disneyland ornament and the little wooden trolley car from a trip to San Francisco.
Social media reminds me that divorce not only breaks Christmas traditions, it shatters our fragile beliefs in forever. It dims the light of hope we held for belonging. But as I write this, I gaze upon my beautiful, somewhat crooked, dying tree decorated with dollar store snowflakes and hand-me-down candy canes and I'm smiling. I belong right where I am.