by KAITLIN SMYTH
For many people, the holidays are known to be the most joyous time of the year where families gather together and recreate traditions. For me, the holidays are just difficult.
My father and I made our homemade sugar cookies the day after Thanksgiving for many years to celebrate that Christmas is near. This simple tradition has always sparked joy in my heart and I always treasured this, as it was my favorite childhood holiday memory.
Unfortunately, during the Thanksgiving of 2016, part of my heart was missing the joy that I shared with my father, as he passed away due to stage IV cancer in June of that year. For months after my father’s death, I stared at his empty seat in my family’s dining room, with silence wrapping around our home that was once bundled with happiness. Holidays were no longer the same without my father.
As I scrolled through Instagram and Snapchat stories during the holidays, I saw many of my friends joyfully smiling with their families. My mind was wrapped around social media during the holidays as jealousy started to overcome my heart.
My father and I had shared a passion for journaling; there were many Starbucks trips where we sat and journaled for hours. I had always looked up to my father and wanted to be just like him. Seeing him smile as he wrote in his journals warmed my heart. One day, while we were journaling together, he said that I could read his journals when he passes away. However, once he lost his battle to cancer, I stared at his journals at night wanting to feel close to him again, but I never had the courage to open them. At that point in my life, I had quit journaling because it was one of the many fond memories that I had with my father, and I felt like I could only share it with him.
During my time at the University of Mary Washington, I had meetings with Gwen Hale, as I was a first-generation college student and she was the director of the First-in-Family Program. She suggested that journaling may help me cope with my father’s death. Initially, I was very anxious, and I spent weeks pondering if I should journal again. During the Thanksgiving of 2019, I longed to hear my dad’s voice. I finally had the courage to open his journals, and I was completely amazed.
There were many journal entries where he wrote about my mother and me. One of my favorites was from the Thanksgiving before he was diagnosed with cancer, in which he wrote that he was extremely lucky to have my mother and me; we were his world. For many years, I had wondered why my father always smiled when he wrote in his journal, but in this moment, I found that my mother and I gave him great joy and that he always loved to look back at these memories.
After many years I decided to create my own holiday tradition. I made a commitment to write letters to my father once a week throughout November and December. In my letters, I tell my father anything exciting that happened throughout the week, knowing he would be beaming with the happiest smile. I write pages of letters telling him exactly how I feel during the holiday season. Writing letters to my father makes me feel safe because I know that, if he were here, he would quickly give me a tight hug and tell me that everything will be okay.
This new holiday tradition helped me immensely during the holidays when it came to coping with my father’s passing. Losing a parent at a young age can take a toll on childhood development. Watching my father’s health decline as his cancer progressively worsened caused me to lose my own identity. A straight-A student-athlete turned into a student who quit the sport that she loved and started to struggle in academics. There were many holidays after my father’s death where I looked in the mirror and didn’t even recognize myself. The bubbly, happy girl that everyone knew and watched grow up was no longer there.
After the holiday season, I realized that journaling can heal the soul and learned that healing is not a straight road to happiness. However, writing letters to my father during this time of year led me to discover myself again. I know that the bond my father and I had kept me going through many obstacles throughout my childhood. Reconnecting with my father through letters helped bring some sense of our bond back.