“So, what’s for dinner?” Twelve pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly. It was a simple question, not one that should have struck terror in my heart, and yet I suddenly couldn’t breathe.
I cleared my throat, nervously fingering the blanket that covered my lap. I thought I’d done so well. I’d managed to decorate the house, make cut-out cookies, wrapped a fair amount of gifts. I’d gotten through Christmas Eve and the ritual of filling stockings and opening gifts on Christmas morning. I’d been so proud of my accomplishments. What I hadn’t considered, what hadn’t even crossed my mind, was our traditional meal of ham, mashed potatoes, rolls and vegetables. There wasn’t even any meat in the house.
I’d forgotten to purchase or prepare Christmas dinner.
Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry in front of your children and grandchildren, I warned inside of my head.
“I forgot dinner,” I managed to croak out around the lump forming in my throat. No one batted an eye.
And that was how I ended up in a gas station picking up frozen pizza on Christmas Day, after a side trip to the cemetery. I can be forgiven my transgression: this was the first Christmas after the death of a husband who had shared my life and my holidays for 34 years. Holidays can be the worst for those who grieve, especially those milestone “firsts.” The holiday season can be a stark reminder of the missing face at the festivities.
Easter was the first holiday I faced after my husband’s unexpected death in March 2012. The holiday had traditionally been David’s forte. He was the one who hid the eggs in the backyard. On Easter morning my eight-year-old Abby had barely glanced at the pitiful pile of small toys and candy lying on the floor near the couch.
I’d bolted from my sister Angie’s house the day before when Abby had held an egg aloft, announcing she was decorating the next one for Daddy. Angie had thoughtfully invited Abby and I to her family’s egg-decorating party, rightfully assuming I would have done nothing in preparation otherwise.
“Bring a dozen eggs to decorate,” she’d chirped in a falsetto cheerful voice. I’d done so dutifully, aware of my motherly duty to face the holiday for my young daughter’s sake. I thrust the carton of eggs in Angie’s direction when we arrived, only realizing the horror of my mistake when she set them on the table and opened the carton.
“I forgot to boil them,” I apologized, near tears.
Easter was the first holiday, coming less than two weeks after David’s death. I could be forgiven the transgression. But nine months later? The ensuing months didn’t seem to matter. I would soon discover that every holiday and “special” day would be difficult, and despite those “firsts” being the worst, the particular sadness of the holiday “without” would never go away completely.
This year I face the fourth Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday without my mother, the third without my husband, and the second without a grandson who lost his battle with cancer within a few months of the Christmas Grandma forgot the ham. Yes, do your math: In the space of three years I lost three loved ones, and I am not alone. As a public speaker and author of a book on grief, I hear heartrending stories everywhere I go, meeting people with multiple losses, shocking unexpected losses, and those that leave me reeling with empathetic sorrow. I have also met those people who distance themselves from me and my story, as if loss is a contagious disease. Unfortunately, it is an inescapable truth that we will all experience loss at some point in our lives.
It is also true that there are ways we can support ourselves and those we love in order to lighten the load of grief, particularly during the holidays. These suggestions for grievers and those who love them stem both from personal experience and from talking to others who have shared their own stories.
• Realize the “joyful” holiday season is anything but for those who are grieving. The holiday season can be fraught with memories of what once was, and is now lost to us. Realize this is a normal reaction to missing a family member or loved one. The first holidays and anniversary dates are a milestone hurdle. If you are the one grieving, find a way to mark these occasions, whether that is with a butterfly tattoo (or in my case, a butterfly sticker applied to my toe during a pedicure), or a balloon released to the sky, finding a personal way to honor that person’s memory. If you love someone who has experienced loss, mark the special dates (birthday, wedding anniversary, anniversary of the date of death) on your calendar and reach out with a card or flowers. Be the friend that remembers, because your friend will never forget these dates. Everyone might be aware that Christmas and Thanksgiving will be difficult, but just as difficult will be that first wedding anniversary or birthday without them. My daughter told me that Halloween was unbearable because her son Jacob, my grandson, loved Halloween.
• Do whatever it takes to get through the holidays. The first Mother’s Day without my mother, my siblings and I visited her gravesite and enjoyed a lunch at my mother’s favorite restaurant. It was the only way we could imagine honoring our mother that first year without her. My children and I did something unprecedented in the Kenyon family that first Thanksgiving without their Dad: We went out to eat at a buffet-style restaurant. We’d never done so before, and we likely never will again, but it seemed the right thing to do to get through that first Thanksgiving. When I couldn’t bear to pull out our artificial Christmas tree and the boxes of ornaments that had decorated our tree for years, I ordered a pre-lit tree online and had it delivered to my door. Then I purchased new blue ornaments to decorate it. I have yet to pull out that bin of old ornaments, but whether or not I will this year remains to be seen. I did hang David’s stocking last year. Our first Christmas without Jacob was going to be excruciating, but my daughter Elizabeth had three other children to consider. When she came up with the idea of exchanging “gag” gifts with her siblings and seeing who could find the most ridiculous gift, I jumped right on the idea. It was the first time I’d seen a light in her eyes since her son’s death. Not all of her siblings joined in the game but she and I playfully vied for the prize of “most hideous” for several weeks. I keep the ugly, misshapen sheep candle (Mary had a little lamb) she found for me displayed inside a glass cabinet as a reminder of how even something simple and silly can pull us out of misery for a short while.
• Be there. Cards and flowers are wonderful ways to reach out to those who are grieving, but nothing replaces a personal visit or chat. Sometimes all we need is someone to sit and listen, or hold our hand. I will never forget my sister’s offer to decorate Easter eggs at her house or my other sister, Denise, staying with me on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that she doesn’t even celebrate the holiday. Her presence meant the world to me. Keep in mind that parties, weddings, or any large group celebrations might be too much for the grieving spouse or parent, but a lunch out, a movie, or even a simple phone call might be just what the mourning person needs. If you are the one who is grieving, socializing might be the last thing you feel like doing but the very thing you need. It is too easy to become isolated as a griever. Which brings us to the next recommendation:
• Reach out beyond yourself and do things for others. My husband died on a Tuesday, and for many weeks Tuesdays were just another reminder of yet another week without him. At some point in my grieving, I decided to make Tuesday a day to reach out to others, and I believe that conscious decision made a huge difference in my own healing. Every Tuesday I got up and reached out to someone who I thought might need some cheering up or who I hadn’t seen or heard from for awhile. Instead of dreading the weekday reminder, I started to look forward to Tuesday, wondering who would be the recipient of a card or letter that week. It wasn’t about getting something back at all, but instead, opening up my heart to others. Many times my card or letter has reached another person just when they needed it, but the act of reaching out to others has. In the process of reaching out to fellow human beings, my world has gotten so much bigger. I begin my grief presentations with this quote that has become my mantra “You can become broken…Or broken open.” Through loss, my heart has become broken open. And when better than the holiday season to open our hearts, broken or otherwise?