Thanksgiving 2016 came two months after my mom died after battling cancer. I don’t remember much of what happened on that holiday. If I had to guess, I drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep on the couch watching the Dallas Cowboys play.
I don’t remember well the events of Christmas that year either. All I can really remember is how I felt during the holidays, supposedly one of the “most beautiful” seasons of the year. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t fun.
Every time I looked at social media, I saw happy families shine, fueled by the energy of living together. But every time I looked back in my life, all I could see was the gaping hole left by my mother when she left this Earth.
Rightfully, vacations are a time to practice gratitude and spread positivity, but when I grieved deeply over my mom’s death, I couldn’t feel grateful or optimistic. I was oddly numb, both empty on the inside and the oppressed effort it took to just exist day in and day out. I was a Certified Grinch and envied anyone with the emotional means to celebrate the season.
Grief can be an experience of loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the sense of isolation that accompanies grief as it forces Americans to say goodbye to their loved ones through plastic curtains and virtually attend memorial services. In retrospect, I feel grateful that I had to do both of these things personally, although that didn’t make the grieving process any easier.
“There are no rules for grief, and it will hit you when it wants to hit you. Not at your time or anyone else’s, ”said Morgan Dingle, a Whit Ridge consultant and person I pay for helping me analyze my problems.
She is right – at least in my experience, both in the past and now, as I sit here with tears in my eyes and return to my trauma. This part of the process is cathartic and, yes, a little condescending, but I hope this retelling helps everyone who is suffering from the holidays this year. So let’s go.
Joan Riccardi’s life ended in the same way as those of others who fell seriously ill. In September 2016, she went to chemotherapy and felt unwell, and then ended up in a hospital near my apartment in downtown Dallas, where the doctor told me that the next step was to open a hospice. I think she only opened her eyes once after that, when the nurse came to change the sheets. I tried to convince her and myself that everything would be okay.
These days, thanks to years of treatment, I don’t often imagine my mother in these final moments. But right after that, the fact that she didn’t prepare the side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner or force us to decorate the Christmas tree “too early” were excruciating reminders of the broken place in my heart where my mom’s love had once lived.
JoJo, as we called her, was the core of our family, and to be honest, the holidays after her death were somewhat awkward as my father, brother, sister and I changed our roles. Who decided what to eat on Thanksgiving other than simple ribs? Who will play Santa for Christmas? When and why should we call each other or meet? This kind of thing always revolved around Mom.
Experts hope that the collective grief that we humans have experienced as a result of the pandemic – be it the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the loss of a sense of normalcy – will change the way our society speaks about it. And I hope so too.
Grieving sucks, simply and easily. But in the spirit of open dialogue, I can testify that it will not be so bad forever.
Over the past five years, I’ve discovered meaningful new ways to connect with my family members. This includes (lovingly) forcing my brother and sister to help me prepare the side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner. I was also able to develop deep relationships with friends who have lost a loved one. We ended up in the worst club ever, but at least he got us together to talk about lingering suck.
It’s tricky, but don’t be shy if conventional traditions don’t inspire you this holiday season. And I would advise you not to hide your grief just because such an attitude does not fit the archetype. I had an incredible support system and somehow my grief still felt like a burden. Sometimes I went out with friends to avoid the heartache, only to feel that all I really wanted was to be alone. What I needed was someone who would willingly “sit in the dump” with me, as Dingle put it, and not judge me for being such a damn lazy person.
On-demand hugs and a lifetime supply of beer might also help. But time to comprehend these emotions is the only consolation prize.
“Just go with him when he hits you, no matter how he hits you,” advised Dingle. “Allow yourself to feel it because there is no rule or structure or why or reason.”
The good news is that I no longer salute my grief over my morning coffee or spend my nights screaming to the point of exhaustion. Bad news: The daily struggle going on in the rearview mirror doesn’t change the fact that my mom didn’t see me get married, or that she won’t be celebrating when my husband and I buy our first home. These moments missed together still excite me to this day.
I will be returning to Texas soon to spend Thanksgiving with my family at my childhood home, congregated at the same table in the formal dining room where she used to sit in front of my father. It’s a familiar setting, but the tradition grows with each passing year. This year, for example, our celebration is expanding to include my husband’s relatives, which undoubtedly means new dishes and desserts to stuff your face with.
JoJo will be there in spirit. And now, as I try to time the rolls with the main rib so as not to ruin dinner, and watch my mom’s favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, play at the party, I love her memories.
And little by little it helps to heal the once broken place in my heart.
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