Thanksgiving After Loss
American Thanksgiving is a serious tradition. We spend days planning everything to be just right and go to great lengths to be surrounded with family and close friends. Most families no longer use the formal dining room on a regular basis but this is one time of the year that people pull out all the stops. Some break out the wedding China although many are fine using mismatched settings or paper plates. Some families borrow folding tables or use desks and put them in their living rooms and hallways so everyone has a seat. Some spend a simple dinner at home alone or with another person enjoying a quiet dinner with the traditional turkey, potatoes, gravy and sides. And pie. There is always pie.
Social media only shows a sliver of life because the only things you see are what people want to show. Around big holidays you might see a lot of posts about thawing the turkey, tips for gravy, airport travel and traffic and people scurrying about as their week becomes all about that 30 minutes being spent to eat together. On the day of Thanksgiving the entire feed is as if the entire world is having a jolly time eating, laughing and feeling loved.
Each year, I hosted both sides of my families as well as invited people who didn’t have a place to go or didn’t want to cook. I started preparations the weekend before, setting up the Christmas tree and moving around the furniture to make sure everyone would fit. Sometimes I ordered a free-range Ho-Ka turkey, experimenting each year with different brining, drying and/or different roasting techniques.
Once the holiday wreath was hung on the door, I cleared out the kitchen and garage fridges and shopped on Monday. I worked the menu backwards according to how long food could be kept, starting with the cranberry sauce on Monday, washing, chopping and dicing on Tuesday, assembly on Wednesday, so everything was oven-ready for an “effortless” Thursday. The turkey would be in the oven at dawn so I could choreograph and synchronize that crazy 35 minutes where everything is on the stovetop and in the oven with all burners on. The oven was jammed with 9 x 12 casserole pans, timing it all backwards so with the presentation of the turkey, everything else was ready too.
The first few years I made Thanksgiving meal, something was always forgotten or didn’t work. One year I cooked the turkey with the giblet bag still inside the cavity. One time I forgot to put the rolls out. But over the years, I learned that those were little things and everyone was happy so it’s actually funny when you find the forgotten cranberry sauce in the back of the fridge from Monday long after the last guest has left.
I always made sure there was enough food so everyone could bring some home and make their own turkey sandwich or soup, or whatever they want to do with the leftovers. Personally, I think Friday is the day it actually tastes good because I’m not smelling the food all day long.
What I never realized growing up and all those years, was that the holidays are a difficult time for many. I thought about the homeless of course. We all do when the Salvation Army bells are ringing and the weather starts to dip below freezing. But unless you are really in a situation, you only think of those people for a fleeting moment or when you drop your spare change in the red metal bucket.
During Thanksgiving (or any other day of the year) some have no family nearby and/or are divorced or single. Some people are caring for their loved one in the hospital, consumed by the numbers on the monitors. Maybe they grab a quick nibble in the hospital cafeteria for sustenance because the nurse reminded them and that was Thanksgiving dinner.
Some people’s family relationships are strained or non-existent. There’s an entire workforce out there too, gas stations, toll booths, stores, (now early Black Friday shopping starts Thursday at 6 p.m.). And don’t forget about hospitals, police stations, restaurants and hotels. While it’s typical to think of the homeless around the holidays, I didn’t think about how any of these people spent Thanksgiving until the holidays first felt weighted for me.
It was the fall of 2010 and I had just lost my husband and then my father died six weeks later. I hadn’t gone through or knew how to go through my finances yet, so in the back of my mind I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to us. The community was feeding us and my refrigerator and freezer were full, but at that time I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me and my three young children.
I had no idea if we were in debt or how I would pay for things from that point on. I hadn’t worked since my first son was born. I wasn’t sure if maybe I would lose my house, have to sell the cars, maybe the piano and some jewelry little by little to make ends meet. I often went though the house in the middle of the night, adding up the resale value of things in cabinets and on the walls. These are the thoughts that go through your mind when you lose a spouse except they aren’t fleeting thoughts. They are very realistic possibilities.
After my husband died, the community, my friends and even people through Facebook, fed us. We were sent breakfasts, lunches, snacks, candy and dinners. I was not sure how much, if any money was in the bank since I previously only wrote checks for the kids’ school or used the charge card quite freely when I needed to buy something.
When each donated meal came through the door, I would split each meal in half, split one half into 1/4ths and put the other half in the freezer because I knew people wouldn’t feed us forever. I chewed my food very slowly since my portion was smaller and so my kids could have more than me. No matter what, I wanted everything around them to seem the same even though it was the furthest thing in the world for their life to ever be the same. But I did it to protect them and to give them routine and normalcy. My new job was to always let them know we would be okay, even though in the back of my mind I was terrified.
The first Thanksgiving in 2010, I knew I might not have a lot of money once I sat down and went through all my finances. While we had received gift cards and money for their college fund, one friend sent me a large check with a simple note that said something along the lines of, “This check is not to be used for anything except a very nice dinner.”
Everyone was asking me what I needed or told me to call them when I needed something but nobody told me what to do. I mean, could I really call a friend at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night in complete panic and tell them I just needed a shoulder to cry on? Everyone says you are strong or tells you to be strong, so you put on a face so others can see you thrive. You are dependent really, on everything they are dropping off on your porch. You want them to know what they are doing is helping and in the meantime they keep telling you how strong you are, so you go along with the charade of appearing strong because the clues and words around you indicate that nobody wants to see you fall apart. But really you are in survival mode and in shock.
Deep down you want just one person out there to tell you it’s okay not to be strong. You want one person, anyone, to say, “I have no idea what to say to you, but I’m here and I’m going to sit with you and whatever you want to say or don’t say is fine and I can handle it.” But it’s an awkward thing to say so you find yourself in a strange way, isolated and lonely even though there are lots of messages, texts, Facebook “likes” and gifts. It’s called “giving them space.” It’s what happens after loss and something I do too when someone loses someone, and by no means did I ever intend to put them there.
Friends ask me what is something they could do for a friend, neighbor’s or their kid’s friend’s parent who lost their spouse. I tell them, “If you think you can handle it, ask them out for a cup of coffee.”
When you go through loss, nobody asks you to do “normal” things anymore. While I may say no, it’s nice to be asked. Asking to go to a party might seem awkward. Coffee might seem too intimate. But know that one day, they want to be out and about and lost in a crowd with you. Maybe they want to sit in public drinking coffee even if they don’t know you that well. Maybe they want to go to a party where everyone knows them and nobody’s seen them since the funeral. It has to happen at some point. If that’s something you want to offer, don’t hold back. Maybe they will say no to everything. That’s okay too and don’t take it personally. Maybe you want to drop off a lasagna or a card. That is wonderful. Maybe you think too much time has passed and you don’t do anything. That’s okay too. But people seem to want different ideas, so asking to sit with them, or go out with them is something that doesn’t happen. There is no wrong way to help someone who is grieving. It’s also not wrong if you don’t do or say anything at all.
That single note scribbled on a Post-It stuck on a check gave me permission for me to do something to feel normal so that’s what I set out to do. I wanted someone else to tell me what to do because I no longer had the male guidance of my husband and my dad. It was in that instant that I became obsessed with spending that check on dinner. I could figure out the rest later.
I went online and didn’t sleep because I decided I had to see the ocean and was determined to figure out how to get there. Everything in my life, possibly forever, was so heavy and I just wanted to be away from the weight of people asking me “How ARRRRRE you?” in that sad, pitying voice.
I wanted to go where people could look at us and not know what happened. I wanted to be around people who didn’t cry because my life makes them sad. I wanted to go where people didn’t know that my life was their worst fear or nightmare. I wanted to look normal and feel normal and blend in, if even for a few days.
I remembered that my husband had all his travel points and rewards from work. We knew each other’s passwords and since I hadn’t closed any accounts yet, I wondered if I could use points to buy tickets in someone else’s name. Ours.
I bought four plane tickets and booked a hotel, all with points, and discovered that even though it’s not the best exchange, I even had enough rewards to buy Christmas presents if I didn’t want to use money.
I have always been a problem solver, so it was the first time since they died, that I felt useful, proud and strong.
We went to San Francisco and did the things people do when they go to San Francisco. The difference was that I didn’t plan a thing. I didn’t know what I was going to do or say or see, but I did it anyway. This trip was the foreshadowing of what would be the rest of my life. I had previously lived a predictable, safe, cozy, if sometimes mundane life. Living in the big house in the suburbs, healthy kids, being married to someone I knew since I was 18 who adored me, and basically doing and having all the things in life some people only dream about.
On Thanksgiving Day, I still had no idea where we were going to eat and I still hadn’t seen the ocean so I drove to the tide pools around Stinson Beach where I used to hang out when I used to live in San Francisco. I was surprised there were so many people. It was the first sign that not everyone did the same things I did or expected to happen on Thanksgiving Day. There were people gathered around bonfires, walking alone or just sitting and reading a book. There were some full-on gatherings with take-out food with people sitting on folding chairs eating on their laps.
The ocean was glorious when I first caught sight of it but it was the smell of the ocean and the bite of the wind that grabbed me and made me feel peaceful and safe. I told the kids to run as fast as they could, so they ran. They asked to take their shoes off and I let them. Their pants would get wet but I didn’t care, which is not like a mother, because you always think three steps ahead and I knew they would be cold later and on the car ride back. But I didn’t want to worry about those kinds of things today, not now. I just wanted to hold on to that light, weightless feeling as long as I could and watch the kids laugh and run and not worry about rules.
We collected shells and looked at the clams stuck on the rocks. We drew messages of “Love to Daddy” in the sand. We each picked a shell and made wishes and threw them as far as we could into the waves. Even though my fears were as big as far as I could see into the waters, I somehow felt at that moment that I would be okay and that my kids would be okay. It was from that moment I decided I would always travel or find ways to get away “from the weight of it all,” in order to feel refreshed, invigorated, inspired and alive.
For many Thanksgivings after that, the weight wasn’t so bad because I didn’t let it in. Grief is really a thief in that one never knows when it will erupt. But over time, the sharp edge softens and you learn to navigate around it or push through it. After deep and unimaginable loss, you learn all good things in life are all temporary and will pass, but the bad things are temporary too. After loss, you learn that everything in life is made up of encapsulated moments, for an unknown duration of time.
Out of all the amazing, kind gifts we received during that very difficult time, the one that has shaped me the most was the note that gave me permission to take care of myself in the very best way possible and for that, I am grateful. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be so much weight on one day. You might find gratitude in the first spring flower peeking out from the snow. Maybe it’s the alluring smell of a new hand soap or the last crunch at the end of an ice cream cone. These things need just as much attention for gratitude because it’s the little things that carry us through the big things.
This experience has taught me to see life from a very different perspective. My blinders were yanked off and can never be put back on. I think and live in such a different way now, that I can’t and don’t want it to be the same as before. I know what it feels like when someone pities you vs. wanting to genuinely help you. I know about sucking in your pride and the humiliation of accepting donations. I know how crushing it can be to be a former princess now having to wear the shabby dress. I know what it feels like for people to judge you without knowing about your life behind closed doors. I know what it’s like for people to think your life is one way when it’s completely the opposite. I never knew these things because I was always on the other side.
I didn’t know a lot back then about a lot of things, and a lot of my life is still unsure. But I don’t worry about things I don’t need to worry about until it’s time. I don’t think a lot about a president who hasn’t started office yet, or earthquakes because that’s not how I want to spend my energy unless I am able and willing to do something about it. I don’t spend the day reading the news over and over, nor do I have cable. Remember when we used to read the paper in the morning and watch the news at night and the rest of the day was mentally spent on other things?
Now I truly believe that Thanksgiving doesn’t need to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact, I just made my Thanksgiving reservations yesterday with the kids on OpenTable for lunch and for dinner I’m going to one of my favorite restaurants for their staff meal Thanksgiving dinner.
Death has humbled me but it has also made me feel okay to feel deserving. It has allowed me to let go of certain things as well as prioritize others. May you always find a way to give to yourself while finding the little things to be thankful for. That is the thanks and the giving that you deserve.
For the most part, I just want to start the morning maybe eating some bacon and not worrying about much more because that means the rest of my day ends up being pretty okay.