Dark Christmas: Life Without Ashley

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Since her 5-year-old daughter Ashley died of cancer last March, Tracy Allen's emotional state has not been something one might compare to a roller coaster.

Roller coasters occasionally go up.

For the past nine months, Tracy's days have pretty much ranged from hard to harder, she says.

Last week, in the wake of Thanksgiving and preparing for her first Christmas without Ashley, she had one of her harder days.

"Life sucks," Tracy said then. "When people tell me it's going to get better, I want to punch them in the face. Don't tell me it's going to get better ... I just wish there was a pill they could give me ..."

A minute later, she didn't want any such pill.

"I don't want it to be any easier. I want to feel every ounce of pain that I'm feeling. I want to grieve for my daughter in every ounce that I'm grieving for her. I want the pain. Without the pain and the anguish and the depression and the exhaustion, it's not real ..."

A minute later, the pain was too much.

"We're leaving town for the holidays," she concluded. "That's the best option I could give anyone in this situation. Get out of town! Leave! Pretend it's not happening!"

When Tracy said these words, she did not want them, or her name, or her photograph, printed in the local newspaper.

Her husband, Frank, later changed her mind by pointing out that they might be able to help others who are new to the "living hell" Tracy and her husband have endured since a mass of brain tumors claimed Ashley after an 18-month struggle for life.

Early this week, both agreed to discuss their grief at a time when, by all rights, they should be shopping for Christmas gifts for their three young sons, and for Ashley.

A time to listen

Ask a thousand bereavement experts for tips on the best things you can do for those caught in a web of grief, and they will answer in a single voice: Listen.

Listening to Frank and Tracy Allen right now is not always easy. Tears can follow laughter as quickly as thunder follows lightning. Old pains can quickly rise to the surface and take the form of sounds like, but is not, bitterness. Canyonwide wounds of the heart and spirit expose themselves, one after the other. There is no need to be anything but honest and blunt as a sledgehammer.

In other words, the Allens are reacting exactly as humans do when they are desperately trying to recover from a heartbreaking, soul-wrenching, life-changing loss.

What they say, however, doesn't just provide insights into the grief process as it is being endured. The Allens know, too well, the deeply appreciated little favors and the well-intentioned errors of friends who are trying to help a healing process in which complete healing can never be achieved.

Listening

Frank: We've gone through several significant days over the months leading up to Christmas. Her birthday, our anniversary ... now the biggie is Christmas. Everybody finds different ways to deal with it. Tracy deals with it differently than I do. My key is to keep busy. Tracy is trying to find things to keep her busy, but she's having a harder time finding ways to do that.

If you're busy with mindless stuff, it doesn't help. You have to be busy with something that really requires your concentration ... Crafts have helped Tracy the past few weeks; she found the harder the crafts, the more it occupied her mind. But the second you stop and think or go to pour yourself a glass of milk from the fridge, it all comes right back. Anyone who says it gets easier ...

Tracy: They're lying.

Frank: There's a lot of things we look at differently. Christmas will never be the same as it was. All the traditional ways of looking at things have changed for us, and they're not going to change back to the way they were.

Tracy: The way I'm approaching this Christmas is just by pretending it's not happening. We're going to Disneyland. It's not denial; I think it's a form of coping with it ...

I swore I wasn't even going to put up any decorations this year, but Frank said, 'I don't want the kids looking back and saying that everything stopped when Ashley died.' That made me think. We do have to try and make everything as normal as possible for the boys. But that's hard. I mean, they see me cry all the time ...

Frank: We don't play Christmas music every day. We used to do that all the time. There are lots of things we don't do anymore ...

Tracy: It wasn't this bad for the first three months or so. The missing hadn't set in yet. But all of a sudden, we desperately missed her. It was brutal. August was really bad, because the kids went back to school and I just fell into this pit of hell, and with Frank at work, I'd have a hard time pulling myself out of it ...

What's bothered me most since Ashley died, I think, is people who've said, 'Call me.' Because, you know what? I'm never going to call them. Why should I have to reach out and call somebody? ... The day of Ashley's funeral, there were people who said, 'We're going to come over next week, take you to lunch.' They never came, they never phoned.

In a situation like this, people don't need to ask, 'What can I do for you' or 'What do you need?' Just go to their house and say, 'We're going to a movie' or 'We're going to lunch.' If they say, 'Absolutely not, I don't want to go,' try again in a couple of weeks ...

Frank: We do have a friend who just comes over and talks. Sometimes he brings a little care package, maybe with some canned food, candy for the kids and treats for the dogs. He talks for a while, then disappears. When I come home, I can tell he was there because Tracy has a smile on her face. Even when they cry together, she smiles for the rest of the day. He is the only friend we have who actually accelerated the number of times he visits after Ashley's death ...

He doesn't wait for us to call. And even if we did call, what would we say? 'Hi, I feel like crying, you wanna come over?' We're not going to do that. We'll just go cry ...

People always worry that they don't know what to say or do, but what's more important is what they aren't saying or doing. Since Ashley died, how many times has there been a knock at the door?

Tracy: Other than that one friend, none.

Frank: Because they don't know what to say. But you know what? There's nothing to say. All they really need to know is to avoid saying, 'I know how you feel,' because there aren't that many people who do know ... Beyond that, just go over and be whoever you are and talk about anything you'd normally talk about ...

Tracy: We're really fortunate, because we have such a strong marital base. We talk a lot, and that helps ... but we've come to the conclusion that this is it, this is our life. There's never ever going to be the joy that we had before, because there's always that void, that sadness. It will never go away.

When our boys graduate, it's going to be sad. When they get married, it's going to be sad. When they have grandchildren, it's going to be sad. It's always going to be sad. We're going to cry on all those days because she's not there ...

On really bad days, I find myself thinking about Ashley being here, and what she would say to me, and how disappointed she would be in me, if I stayed in that emotional spot. That gets me motivated to get up off the couch and do something, because I know she would just say, 'What's your problem? I'm still here, and you're a loser. So get up and grip.'

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