Thanksgiving was really the Super Bowl of holidays for my mom, and we would usually celebrate with a house full of people, way too much food, and lots of laughter. Mom made sure we made everyone’s favorite dishes, had plenty of coffee and pie, and invited anyone who needed a place to call home for the holidays. She was the glue that held our family together, and we admittedly struggled to keep close after she died in 2007. The first Thanksgiving after she left, we all descended on my father’s house, made lots of food, laughed a little too much and a little too loudly, trying to pretend everything was still going to be the same. It wasn’t, and we all knew it.
For a number of reasons, we didn’t have the big Thanksgiving feast at my Dad’s house the next year, which left me with yet another feeling of loss. So, that second year without Mom, my husband and I went to a friend’s house to eat with them and their young daughters. It was nice of them to welcome us into their home, but it didn’t feel “right” to me. We were invited to a number of people’s homes the following year, but I just couldn’t get into the idea of having someone else’s holiday again. So, last year, we had Thanksgiving at our house.
We had friends over, and made way too much food, and laughed real laughter and shared a sense of togetherness that can only come when it isn’t being forced. I made the spinach stuffed mushrooms that my mom taught me to make, and wore her teeny little diamond ear rings proudly in my ears. It all felt as good as a Thanksgiving without Mom could feel, and helped me to realize that I am in charge of my own traditions now. I can create new ones while still honoring the memory of my mom. I don’t have to feel obligated to participate in other people’s family traditions, or go to certain gatherings because other people think that I should. It was a powerful and freeing lesson to learn.
A close friend of mine lost her brother suddenly, just two months after Mom died. She spent the year following her brother’s death trying to fit into other people’s expectations of how she should be grieving, and how she should be “moving on.” That third year, she made the brave choice to say “no” to a family gathering that would not have been the best fit for her, and she joined us for Thanksgiving instead. I think only people who are grieving (or going through a crisis) can understand the delicate balance of trying to make others happy and keep your own sanity at the same time. It is a difficult thing, and makes the strongest people I know question themselves.
This year, we will once again gather at my father’s home for the traditional family Thanksgiving, in our own un-traditional way. We will be celebrating on the first weekend of December, since that’s when my brother and his wife can make the trip from Nashville. And the warm and welcoming house I grew up in now includes the added love of Shirley, a long time family friend who is now my father’s wife. As usual, we will be joined by Emily, my best friend from childhood, and her family. Emily’s mom and my mom were friends before either of them had children, and they remained close until my mom’s death. Having them around for holidays and special occasions makes me feel the warmth and wonder of my childhood every time.
We will no longer have the company of Aunt Jean, Uncle Eddie, my cousin Jeff, or Bubbie, who had been my last surviving grandparent. I am struck by how many members of our family have died, and also by how close those of us who are left have become.
Life after loss hasn’t looked “the same” for me, my family, or my friends, but it has been good and it has been honest. We have all made some choices, changes, and compromises along the way as we have slowly figured out what feels right for each of us now. We have found our own unique ways to celebrate the things that are important to us, and to honor the memories of the ones who will always be in our hearts.
Through all of the sadness, strained relationships, and awkward moments, we have come to this new place, closer than ever. And for that, I am thankful.