Revisiting the "First" Thanksgiving

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Since coming back from Camp Widow Toronto, the upcoming holiday season has been on my mind a lot. I met so many new widows in Toronto. So many who are enduring the horror of their first holiday season without their person this year. As I sat down this morning to write, I began thinking, just what could I share that might resonate with anyone out there who is about to endure the kickoff of their first holiday season widowed?

I decided to go back, to my personal blog - Our 1000 Days - where the majority of that first year was written about, before I wrote for Soaring Spirits. I went back to November 26, 2012… just 5 months after his death. It is there that I found this piece, talking about having made it through that first major holiday...

I survived First Thanksgiving, as I’m calling it, and I learned a thing or two… I learned from writing and talking to other widows that sometimes the time leading up to the holiday is the worst. And sometimes the day of the holiday is the worst. And sometimes, as was the case for me… the actual holiday itself is kind-of not too bad. Hell there was even some really enjoyable times and I was able to share in them and feel all the love. It was easy to feel all the love, I spent the day with Drew’s family. Lots of things to do. Lots of people to be with, lots of love. Lots of joy.

This is the tricky part… this is where your mind wants to believe that maybe you’ll make it entirely through the holidays with that same “this isn’t so bad” feeling...

This is the pivotal time where you begin to build up… hope! Oh, but no… because then the AFTER the holiday slams right into you. When everyone goes back to their lives and their responsibilities and their world. Oops, my bad, there I went thinking maybe by some miracle a holiday had slipped on by without me having to go into the throes of grief… I don’t know why I keep hoping for this miracle… clinging desperately to it. Its a special kind of insanity to live in, I will tell you… because when you ARE feeling kind-of okay, you start to think something is wrong with you. “Why am I not feeling more upset? Why am I not feeling anything? Am I broken? Can I not feel anymore? Oh my God! I’m broken and I will never feel again!”

Aaaaaand just about then is when you start fucking feeling again… full force. Anger followed by tears followed by more anger and more tears and tiny bits of trying to pull out of it and find something to be grateful for… and you almost pull yourself out with some positive glimmer like “well at least I’m not stuck in a life that I don’t want… in some miserable job…” but you know that line is bullshit, because you’d trade any horrible job just to have this person back. And then you crash back down into it all. Exhausting is the word.

So I guess what I really learned from my first holiday without my partner, is that there is NO predictable way that a holiday will go… but it’s going to suck balls no matter what. Whether it’s at the beginning, middle, end, or all the way through… it is going to piss you off and make you bitter and angry and sad and scared and lonely and … did I say bitter?

So there’s my two cents on first holidays as a widow. It’s not nearly as pretty, inspiring or eloquent as the things I usually write… but today is not a pretty, inspiring or eloquent kind of day in my life. I dunno about you… but I feel at least a little bit better having gotten that out.”

Yup, I still remember that Thanksgiving like it was yesterday. Trying to hold my plate and go around the buffet of food, barely being able to keep my hands steady because I was shaking so bad. Trying so hard not to break down when we all stood and said a prayer (I failed miserably at keeping composure, of course). Feeling so fragile and so angry that I didn’t want to have to be around anyone at all, while simultaneously being too scared to be alone.

What I didn’t share in that post years ago, was the story of the empty chair. This story really does go down in the pantheon collection of my best widowed stories. We had dinner at Drew’s Aunt’s house for the first time because his parents couldn’t deal with putting on a holiday yet. So, this woman liked to be formal... and had assigned seats. As I look around the room for my name, suddenly I find it, and my mouth falls open with total and complete horror (I'm sure you can see where this is going). Not only did she seat me at the table with Drew's other aunt and grandma (both widows), but she also left the only empty chair in the entire room - you guessed it - right beside ME.

Now, you could argue that maybe it was a weird way she was honoring him - as some people leave an open chair as a custom of remembrance - only I know this woman, and she is not that thoughtful. In no way was this meant intentionally or thoughtfully. It was the opposite... done without consideration. In the moment, it was excruciatingly painful. I wanted to punch her. I wondered if anyone else even noticed - which it seemed they didn't. Or they pretended they didn't. Thankfully, my dark humor came to play and saved me.

After a few tears, I could not help but laugh inside at the horribleness of this moment I was in. And of how awful she was going to feel when she realized it (because yes, I made sure to pass the info along the next day via Drew's dad) Even in the midst of the pain, I immediately realized this would be a story I would tell for years to come that would actually bring some slight, demented, humor to it all. She was indeed horrified when she found out the next day. Needless to say, the next year, she made sure I was seated at the head table, no empty chairs in sight.

That first Thanksgiving was certainly the worst. And it’s true that each one has gotten better. In the past year actually, much better. Since moving to Ohio, I now live close enough to my sister to see her for the holidays for the first time in our adult lives. So now, my holidays look very, very different. For the second year in a row, this Wednesday night, Mike, Shelby and I will be driving up to upstate New York to be with her and my nephews and brother-in-law. Without living parents, I’ve been adopted into other people’s family holidays for most of my life… it feels good to finally be having a holiday with my own family. It feels grounding, and so healing. And it feels like a gift that Drew gave me in this “after life”. At least, that’s how I’ve decided to look at it.

It doesn’t mean I don’t still miss him on the holidays, but it does mean that I feel like he is a part of it all because so much about my holidays have changed because of his death. And a lot of that change, is good. I still talk to his family or Skype with them too on the holidays, so we have kept that connection going. It’s taken a lot of years to get here, but I am finally enjoying the holidays again, and my love for him is still a part of it… in fact, over time, as the grief subsides, my love for him is even MORE a part of it all than before.

But God has it taken a lot of years of just allowing myself to hate the holidays... looking back, I'm glad I let myself be bitter and angry and sad on those days and the days surrounding. It was needed, and important. As I see it, it helped me to bleed out some of the pain, so that one day there could be room for joy again. 


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  • commented 2017-11-20 06:48:23 -0800
    I remember how hard Christmas was on you for years Kelley! I think the only good thing about it is how much more we enjoy and appreciate those holidays once we are finally able to feel joyful again. For me, it feels tenfold.
  • commented 2017-11-20 06:47:14 -0800
    Thank you Cathy for sharing – I’m betting more than a few of us have abandoned a cart! Have a safe holiday.
  • commented 2017-11-19 10:33:59 -0800
    Yes, that empty chair story will forever be yours to tell! If I included empty chairs, there would be more empty than filled seats. Every year I think and hope that the holidays will be better, and then, while shopping for dinner items “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” came on, and I about abandoned my cart, which I haven’t done in years. I guess I’m still bleeding out. Safe travels and enjoy your family time.
  • commented 2017-11-19 08:57:40 -0800
    Yes!!! I needed to hate and ignore christmas for a couple years, ssothat I could eventuallylove it again. That empty chair though… wow lol.

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