Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. Maybe it is because it is so simple, no gifts to buy, no ugly sweaters; just food, family, friends, football and fun. Like most of you, Thanksgiving and other holidays become something very different after the death of our child, grandchild or sibling. That first Thanksgiving after my daughter Ashley’s death was excruciating as I tried to maintain our traditional extended family gathering.
I remember that an empty chair and place setting were there to honor Ashley; the gesture was kind but the sight of that empty chair only drew my focus more intently to all that I had lost. One of our traditions was that we would go around the room and everyone would say what they were thankful for that year. When it came my turn to speak I said “I am thankful I was able to get out of bed this morning because all I wanted to do was stay home and cry.”
Grief in the early years can be so cruel and the journey so difficult because it takes the world as we know it and literally turns it 180 degrees. Holidays, which used to bring joy and celebration, instead become a dreaded time each year filled with anxiety about how we can survive.
Good fortune smiled on me in my early years of grief. I participated in one of the best grief programs available as a member of a Compassionate Friends Chapter where I could share my feelings and learn from others about how they survived the holidays. I learned early on that I needed to take care of myself and only participate in activities that I could handle. Thankfully, I also discovered that it was okay to keep traditions that worked for me and to change and make new traditions as well.
Somehow, I survived by understanding what worked for me each holiday. Giving to others became part of my survival plan at Christmas. There was something very healing about being a father who had no daughter to buy a gift for, giving a gift to a daughter who had no father to receive a gift from. As the years went by and I continued to process my loss, I began to embrace the new and different life grief had given me. Grief had taught me that my love for Ashley remained alive and strong in my heart, and that it was up to me to find creative ways to express that love. I vowed every day that I would be Ashley’s daddy for as long as I live, not for as long as she lived.
I can’t tell you the exact year but one morning I woke up as Thanksgiving was approaching. A thought just enveloped me; that I wasn’t honoring Ashley by hiding from the holiday and that I was going to try something new. I made the decision that I was going to celebrate full speed in honor of her life. I planned an extravagant dinner; I spent two days preparing and hosting a true feast. For reasons I may never fully understand, it was an incredible Thanksgiving. We all went around the room and said what we were thankful for. When it came my turn to speak I said, “I am so very thankful that I was given the honor of being Ashley’s daddy for 18 wonderful years.”
Today, I can honestly tell you that I fully embrace the holiday season; Ashley would want me to. After 15 years I still cry for what I have lost, but in the next moment I can smile for all that I had and continue to have. Getting from there to here was not easy; I had no road map and had to trust each of the steps forward while not losing faith when I would take some steps backwards.
My story is not unique; there are tens of thousands of others like me who have found their way back into life because they did not walk alone and had the support of The Compassionate Friends. Wherever you are on your journey, my hope is that you will take the time to wrap yourself in a blanket of memories of your loved one whenever you can. Please take care of yourself and seek support from those who understand your grief and will allow you to move at your own pace. Do things your way, and even when all you can see is that they have died, take a breath, pause and remember that they also lived. And because they lived, our love for them lives on in every tear, every smile and in every precious memory.
Have a gentle Thanksgiving,
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