This Christmas tradition helps my parents and me grieve

As we mourn the loss of three of my grandparents, my parents and I have found joy in the holiday tradition of opening food advent calendars.  (Photo: Megan DuBois)

As we mourn the loss of three of my grandparents, my parents and I have found joy in the holiday tradition of opening food advent calendars. (Photo: Megan DuBois)

Advent calendars are a big part of my family’s Christmas traditions. When I was a kid, my parents used to buy me cute chocolate-filled calendars filled with low-quality chocolate, but I didn’t care. As I get older, the tradition still lives on, but now my parents and I buy a few more deluxe advent calendars — filled with cheese, wine, and beer — and a more decadent chocolate option, made by German chocolatier Moser Roth, instead of the cheesy chocolate version I had growing up.

During the pandemic, I started filming my parents opening our advent calendars almost every night and then posting the short clips to Instagram. It was a nice way to connect with my followers, but it was also something for us to look forward to in a season of immense loss.

That season of grief has continued over the past two Christmases and is now heading into a third. In 2020 I lost my paternal grandfather to cancer just six weeks before Christmas. He lived only a few miles from our house and we would spend part of Christmas Eve with him. Suddenly our world had changed and Christmas Eve was a lot quieter.

In August 2021, my maternal grandmother, whom I affectionately called Memaw, passed away suddenly. In her house we spent the rest of Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day surrounded by family. Now her house is dark, with the memories of holiday seasons past lurking in the shadows, waiting for the light to be turned back on, even if it ends up belonging to a different family.

In October, my maternal grandfather passed away. Although my family didn’t spend much time with him because of the distance (we live in Florida and he lived in Illinois), the weekly calls have stopped and the pieces I have of him are old voicemails and memories of his visit when I was a kid .

Because my own grief has been increasing in recent years, I also saw it grow with my parents. Not only was I processing the loss of my relatives, but I also watched my mom and dad lose their parents, which was especially heartbreaking.

The Christmas season is always challenging with juggling social events and family time. Add to that the loss of a loved one and grief overwhelms what was once a festive holiday. The empty chair your lost loved one once sat on seems to take over the room like a ticking time bomb, and when you look at it at the right time, it triggers something inside you. The tears begin to flow with the sadness and anguish of the loss.

Even though some holiday traditions have stopped or changed due to the loss of relatives, one that hasn’t is my parents and I open advent calendars together. As the holiday season approaches, my mom and I look for the season’s best advent calendars to take home and eagerly await when we can open each of the little flaps.

My mom and dad with this year's advent calendars.  (Photo: Megan DuBois)

My mom and dad with this year’s advent calendars. (Photo: Megan DuBois)

We always buy food calendars because we love trying new brands and sometimes we find a few new favorite items that make their way into our pantry. For example, in the past we bought the Aldi Holiday Magic Wine advent calendar and the Bonne Maman advent calendar, which is filled with fruit spreads and honey. From the latter of the two, we even found our new favorite jams, strawberry and red currant. We’ve also had boozy popcorn, hot sauce, and cheese advent calendars.

This year, instead of buying every food calendar we could find, we threw it all at once at the grocery store. We have four foodie themed advent calendars: wine, beer, cheese and chocolate. Every evening we open the corresponding daytime valve and share some festive thoughts about what we find inside with my Instagram followers.

Opening the advent calendars is often the only bright spot on days when the darkness of sadness rattles in our minds like a ball in a mason jar. It was, and still is, a time when my parents and I gather in the living room, my dad says something crazy for the whole world to hear, and we share what was on each calendar for that night.

My mom and I look forward to what my dad is going to say because we really never know what’s going to happen. Some nights he sings, some nights he dances, and some nights he counts down a Santa countdown that he tells people to share with their children. These little messages are never rehearsed and behind the camera I often have to hold back my laughter so everyone can hear what my dad has to say.

For the past three years, my parents and I have received messages from people all over the world saying they enjoy watching my mom and dad. They ask for more videos from them or wonder if they have their own social media pages (they don’t…yet). I’ve also gotten messages leading up to the holidays asking if we’re doing advent calendars again this year, and the answer is always yes.

I share these feelings with my parents, not just because they’re happy to know people enjoy watching them, but because it reminds the three of us that even when we’re having a rough day, we can always brighten someone else’s through something as easy and fun as opening an advent calendar.

As we go through the third holiday season of losing another parent and grandparent, I am reminded that grief never leaves us. Like the glass jar with the ball in it, the jar can get bigger as we grow around our grief, but it never really goes away. Even when the tides of life are calm and the pot doesn’t rattle, the sadness is still there.

The pot can rattle a bit during the holiday season and sadness comes in waves, but what my parents and I have learned is that opening advent calendars and sharing festive cheer with others will often brighten our own day, even though the ball is in shake and move the pot and the seat remains empty with the memories of past vacations.

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