Holidays Are Happy, Right? Kindness as Comfort for Grief

The chubby man’s mirrored goggles reflected sunlight as he skillfully performed an underwater flip in the Nuuanu YMCA pool, barely stirring the surface of the water at the east end of his swimming lane. His yellow fins and flaccid arms propelled him swiftly toward me.

I hoped he’d be friendly. Swimming pool rules dictated you must share your lane, but some swimmers abhor having only one side of the lane. One guy hogged the entire lane and ran into me. Maybe he figured I wasn’t a serious swimmer, wasn’t fast like him with his long black fins. I wear water shoes. They slow me down, but they also pad my fallen metatarsal arches so they don’t ache. You gave me overly flexible feet, Mom, I thought, like yours were. My tears dripped down the sides of my nose.

I swallowed hard and jumped into the west end of the chubby man’s lane, moved out of his path, and waited. He didn’t notice me, and flipped again. Before he could swim away, I tapped him on a shoulder.

He stood up, looked at me, and smiled a genuinely friendly smile. “Sure, you can share my lane. Enjoy your swim.” He moved further to the left, giving me room on the right.

“Thanks, Mister!”

“Dave.” His smile widened. He reached for my hand, we shook, and he resumed swimming. I swam on the right side beside the lane dividers blocking off a water exercise class filled mostly with elderly women doing calisthenics in the water.

Ever since then, Dave greets me with a big bright smile. Last week, when my leg was cramping from too much Tai Chi practice, he hesitantly asked, “Are you okay? You aren’t swimming continuous laps like you usually do.”

“Thanks for noticing,” I said. “I’m okay, it’s just a cramp.” I hoped my swim mask hid the tears suddenly clouding my eyes.

I’d been dodging waves of grief threatening to turn into tsunamis and drown me during these December holidays. Yearend; that’s when missing Mom becomes especially keen. We talked on the phone, me on Oahu, her in Tucson, every day.

I always mailed my lovingly selected Christmas presents to her, my sisters and brother in early December. She mailed me a generous check that usually arrived by Christmas. On my many visits to Arizona, we decorated her Christmas tree together, with lights and decorations I remembered from childhood.

Two years and 11 months ago, she died of a massive stroke shortly after the New Year. Part of me still fears something horrible will happen soon after the New Year celebrations are over. Many holiday happenings, which are supposed to bring joy, instead serve as poignant reminders of my loss.

YMCA Dave’s friendly thoughtfulness reminded me of giving and humorous Mom. Reminded me of that January three years ago when my phone bill shrank and the silence in my apartment was deafening.

Dave’s kind attention pulled me back into awareness that I’m not as isolated as I sometimes feel. His seeing me gave me hope. It hit me one morning that, since a stranger like Dave could lift me up, maybe I could do the same for someone also weighted down with missing someone they’d loved and lost. At least, I could try. Maybe they, like me, were hungry to be lifted up.

I thought about Blanche’s words in the 1951 play titled A Streetcar Named Desire. She said strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. That had certainly been true with Dave, but my fearful side cautioned me, strangers can also be serial killers. I didn’t want to think like that, but sometimes my negativity took control. I cajoled myself, “Banish those thoughts! Stay positive. You don’t have to put yourself at risk by giving them a ride, you know. A smile will do.”

I read an article in Psychology Today that offered nine strategies on how to cope with grief during the holidays. The most appealing one for me was doing something kind for others. When we reach out like this, the article said, even in the midst of grief, we still have a gift to offer the world. Performing such acts can be balm for the grieving spirit. The article suggested doing charity work, donating gifts to needy families, or serving meals at a soup kitchen.

Preferring one-on-one interactions, I looked for opportunities to sow some joy on a smaller scale. Speculating that people soak up complements like flowers absorb rain, I devised a strategy.

I tried it out on Tabatha, a cheerful, pretty girl I enjoyed chatting with at the YMCA’s front desk. I asked her if she would let me take her picture with my cell phone and share it on Facebook.

“Sure.” She grinned. “Thanks.”

I grinned back. Mission accomplished. I asked her if she had a page there.

She shook her head. “I prefer to live in the moment.”

Thinking about my mom, I said, “If you’re grieving, living in the moment hurts.” I blinked hard. “Even though I know it’s okay to feel. Healing, even.”

She told me she’d learned in psychology that grief relates to a memory from the past rather than a present-moment experience. “What are you feeling in your body at this present moment?”

“A little sore from lifting weights.”

“If you focus on that, you won’t be grieving. You’ll come back to the moment.”

“So let’s say I’m afraid of something. Are you saying, since I’m afraid, I’m attaching to an imagined scary future rather than a safe present moment?”

She nodded, smiling. “So focus on the now.”

“Okay, Ram Dass, I’ll be here now.”

I decided to keep trying to dispense small kindnesses. It’s fun being pulled into a happy present moment when upbeat or funny words bring a smile to someone else’s face.

Mostly, I figure, other people are helping me. Like a woman in the water during exercise class who wished me a good day and described her look-alike sister and her, both of whose names begin with the letter M, as M and M. I teased her that she’d chosen that name because she and her sister were eye candy. She laughed and I smiled inside.

Later, in the same woman’s locker room, I chatted with a stranger about the nice hot showers. I told this woman she had such lovely alabaster skin (she did indeed). She smiled shyly and glanced at herself in the mirror. The ends of my mouth curled up, too. In the parking lot, she waved at me.

Sometimes my quest to sow joy doesn’t give me the response I’d like. Recently, a young man at the YMCA’s front desk seemed not to understand my humor. I say this because I walked into the YMCA watching a woman with purple hair climb the stairs in front of me. I was intrigued by why this otherwise attractive young woman would dye her hair the color of an Easter egg. I asked the guy behind the desk if he’d ever seen a woman with purple hair before, and if he supposed she’d dyed her hair purple because she was a fan of the movie The Color Purple. Or maybe because she liked Hendrix’s song Purple Haze?

“Of course I’ve seen other women come in here with purple hair,” the young man said, not cracking a smile. Maybe even disdainfully. He looked at me as if I were a dinosaur.

I sighed and thought, Might as give him the space to be humorless. That’s a kindness, too.

Just then Tabatha clocked in at the front desk. We talked animatedly and excitedly. In that present moment, I felt hopeful again.

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