Grief and the Holidays
Around this time every year, mid October or so, my mind turns as it always has toward the upcoming holiday season. It's an interesting run which begins for me on October 31st, Halloween. The chronology is Halloween, my birthday a week later, Thanksgiving three weeks or so after that, Christmas a month later, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day a week later, and just like that we put up a fresh calendar to begin the new year.
In the past, this was an exciting time of year for me. As a girl, I always enjoyed planning my costume and birthday party so closely together; Thanksgiving always meant family and friends crowding our house for hours on end; Christmas was either dinner at our house or traveling to celebrate with friends in a neighboring town; New Year's Eve brought an opportunity for a sleepover with cousins or friends while my parents went across the street to hang out with neighbors and ring the New Year in with a few beverages and lots of laughter.
My father's last Thanksgiving found me blissfully unaware of just how much of a toll his cancer had already taken in a short seven months. He departed soon after, only a couple of weeks before Christmas. We continued to celebrate Christmas that year, primarily because that was what we were supposed to do, but there was no real festivity in it, at least not for me.
We celebrated many subsequent birthdays, Thanksgivings, and Christmases at my parents' house, and over the years as I got married and we had our first son, the pattern shifted and we were celebrating at our home instead. My mother would come and stay with us, and the first time this happened I realized that none of our celebrations would ever be the same.
In the last few years of my mother's life, when traveling became easier for us and more difficult for her, we resumed Thanksgiving celebrations at her home, as this was always her favorite holiday. The familiar smells, the comforting warmth, the joy of being together were once again in hand, and we were making memories to treasure for the time that this would no longer be possible. My mother's last Thanksgiving was the first time I noticed the strain she was under in trying to keep all of it the same - doing the cooking, assigning tasks, setting the table with the holiday plates, using my grandmother's serving dishes. I offered to help, and at first she shooed me away as always. When she realized that she couldn't lift the turkey out of the oven and she turned to me looking as though she was going to cry, I realized that none of our celebrations would ever be the same.
Our first Thanksgiving without her was two years ago. We celebrated it at her home, and the smells, the family and neighbors, the warmth, all of those things were there. Still, there was a hole; we all recognized the absence, the loss. There were stories, there were tears, there were laughs and hugs. We realized that none of our celebrations would ever be the same.
The birthdays and the holidays can never be the same again. There is a sadness, and always a wish for just one more holiday with her, with him, always a longing for just one more chance to talk and laugh and say, "I love you." This life after loss won't ever be the same. And yet, there is also joy - in forming new traditions, in preserving some pieces of past celebrations and incorporating our own embellishments. There is joy in recognizing that we still have the capacity to love and be loved, and that there is always a reason to be thankful. And every time I have the choice, I choose joy.