How we survived the holidays


Members of my grief group began talking about the holidays in October. Though I was new to the group, I had actually already made plans for my family in September, just a few weeks after my sister died. I recently mentioned how the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking was my saving grace during the first long nights after my sister's death. On one of those early nights I listened to an episode where Lucy Kalanathi describe how her family ditched the holiday traditions the first year after her husband's death and went to Palm Springs. Yes, I thought - this is what we have to do.  We have to ditch tradition.   

The thought of doing anything normal for the holidays last year was not appealing. The 'firsts' after death are well known in grief circles - from the big ones (first birthday, first family gathering, first holiday) to the mundane (first time you hear a certain song, the first time you cut your hair, the first time you wear sandals). Yes - all of those firsts made me cry, even the sandals. All of the firsts are hard. It's especially hard when you can make a direct comparison (e.g., last year at this time I was spending the weekend with my sister). That's why Facebook's memories are so challenging. Even if the photo they show me has nothing to do with my sister, in my head I know that she was alive when it was taken, and that's enough to make me crumble.

So, I used this information to plan for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever we did - it could not be comparable to years past. For Thanksgiving, my family came to visit me in Boston. They had only come up as a unit once - 11 years ago.  I knew a family gathering in Boston would be safer because we would have (practically) nothing to compare it to. At first, I had imagined that I would cook traditional Thanksgiving foods, but I soon realized that I just couldn't. The idea of sitting down to a table laden with stuffing, biscuits, and turkey was just too much. Her absense would press down so heavily. So I made pizza. And it was actually very easy to imagine that it was any other day instead of Thanksgiving. My mom did bring up an apple pie - my favorite - but that was the most Thanksgivingish ritual that we participated in. And I think my mom and I ate the whole thing by ourselves.

My brother, Austin, and my husband, Nate, with our daughter at the Franklin Park Zoo during the Thanksgiving weekend.  

That weekend we took walks to the park, went to the zoo, and generally enjoyed each other's company. The weekend itself was OK for me, or at least as OK as I could've hoped for. 

I knew Christmas would be harder. For one reason or another, my sister and I hadn't been together for four of the past five Thanksgivings, but we were always together for Christmas. Alison and I always got matching gifts in different colors.  She liked to open her gift faster so that she could announce the contents before I even started on the wrapping paper. While you might imagine that she would've grown out of this behavior over time, it continued into adulthood.

Wanting to escape Christmas trees, cookie platters, and general merriment, my family booked a trip to Florida and we left on Christmas Day - once again pretending that the holiday didn't exist. Our destination selection criteria were:

  1. Warm enough to play outside;
  2. Direct flight from NY in three hours or less;
  3. A place we never went to with Alison.

We ended up in Tampa - my husband and daughter, my mother, brother, brother-in-law and nephew.

While traveling with two toddlers can be adventurous/ambitious, it was a great choice for my family as we marked our first holiday season without my sister. I recognize that getting out of town isn't possible for everyone, and I am grateful that we were able to travel this year together.

For a group of sad people we look...pretty good. Warm air and a change of scenery can really help.

There are others in grief who prefer to celebrate the holidays, but amend them in some way. You may choose to leave an empty place at the table for your lost loved one. Perhaps you will visit the cemetery or the space where you spread ashes. My hope is that everyone feels like they have the space to do whatever they want - there’s no single prescription for making it through your year of firsts. There should be no one forcing you to conform to any sort of tradition. Do whatever feels best. I have found that grief is a perfectly acceptable reason to be selfish. Don't worry about the in-laws, ignore the judgemental looks from your cousin, you do whatever you have to do to make it through the season. 



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