Holidays and grief: How a charity event warmed my family's hearts

Guest Opinion: Support helps as we deal with the loss of a loved one to suicide, one of the leading and mostly preventable causes of premature death.
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Jennifer Stuber and children Jake, 8, and Zoe, 4.

Guest Opinion: Support helps as we deal with the loss of a loved one to suicide, one of the leading and mostly preventable causes of premature death.

Our family, along with 85 other  Seattle area families, recently had the opportunity to visit Santa Claus at the North Pole. 

Wow! We were escorted by elves onto an airplane where the flight attendants most definitely cared about customer service for families who couldn't have been more grateful for help in hard times. A convincing ruse transpired: Without ever leaving the ground, we took flight to the North Pole. A free dinner, holiday carols and smiles were served up. My daughter, age 4, the perfect age for Santa beguiling, had to be peeled off the ceiling reminded by sweet flight attendants to buckle up her seat belt.

Delta Airlines and other local businesses had teamed up with the Safe Crossing Program, a local non-profit organization that helps grieving children heal, for this very special flight. Once we arrived at the North Pole (AKA a disguised airlines hanger at the Sea-Tac Airport), we were greeted by the Coca-Cola Polar Bear, Blitz from the Seattle Seahawks and Delta airlines employees serving up cocoa and cheer.

Santa and Mrs. Claus were brought in on a crane riding a modern sleigh to the delight of the small children. Firefighters were on hand to share tales of heroism. The airplane’s cockpit was opened for exploration. Delta employees whose hearts are bigger than their salaries, were asked if they would like to purchase a customized gift for a child. I was told by the event organizers there were far more employees wishing to participate in the gift-giving and the event than children who could fit onto the airplane.

This very special invitation was extended to my family because we are about to live through our third holiday season without Matt. Matt, who was in my opinion one of the most genuine people who ever lived, died nearly three years ago by suicide, leaving me a 38-year-old widow and a solo parent to two young children. He held the false belief that there wasn’t any hope of restoring his sanity or his professional identity, both disrupted by an illness called major depression.

We live with painful truths since Matt’s death: Suicide is a leading cause of premature death in the United States and here in Washington state, the suicide rate is 15 percent higher than the national average. This means there are many other families like us who are also grieving this especially difficult kind of loss. Most have little or no support because there are only a handful of suicide-specific bereavement support groups scattered throughout the state. Matt’s death and most other deaths by suicide are preventable tragedies.  

The two prior holiday seasons were not easy for us. The most difficult holiday ritual for me personally: receiving holiday cards with photos of friends and family. This hurts because I want so much to reciprocate, but I am thwarted by the thought of the pain that might come from sending out a family photograph without Matt in it. I am starting to notice the re-emergence of the now familiar edginess —the collision of my raw feelings of grief with the joys of the holiday season. It can get you thinking you are Ebenezer Scrooge.

Perhaps this season I will be more successful in fighting off the ghosts of Christmases past. For one, I am aware that we are marching on resiliently while still holding Matt’s memory in our hearts. Turns out, the mantra of taking things day-by-day and having faith that things do get better with time has some wisdom to it.  Then there is the unexpected gift of our grief and loss — we are more compassionate human beings because of it — longing to pass on the generous gifts of love and support we have received to others. The realization that we are not alone in our grief, that we are being supported by community in such beautiful ways means everything to our family’s on-going recovery. 

I am grateful to all who made our trip to the North Pole possible. You gave us perspective this holiday season. I wish all people out there who could use an extra boost this holiday season are the recipients of such acts of kindness. Even my 8-year-old son, who is growing too cool for Santa Claus, agreed it was a night to warm the heart. And, it looks like I will be sending that holiday card after all thanks to the volunteer photographer in the North Pole who snapped our family photo.


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