When there are no thanks to be given

11_16_09.jpgAs any of us widows and widowers know, one of the most trying times of the Annual Widowed Calendar is upon us. It’s impossible to turn on the TV or walk into any store without having it crammed down our gagging, grieving throats:

The holidays.

That formerly joyous, happy, oblivious time of year where we got to focus on fun, holiday frivolity; mindlessly giving thanks for all we have; and spending time with those most important in our lives. But for the widowed—especially for those stumbling through the quicksand of the first year of widowhood—this time of year is downright excruciating.

As a four-year widow, this is my fifth time around for all of these holidays. And I do have to say that they have gotten easier over time. Not consistently and not in a steady linear improvement each year, but by now, they aren’t as painful as they used to be. I can make it through most of the big actual holiday days while smiling and enjoying myself, thinking remarkably little about my husband.

But it certainly hasn’t always been this way. And ironically, over the years I’ve almost struggled more with Thanksgiving than I have Christmas. Four years ago, as a brand-new, four-month-old widow, Thanksgiving 2005 was my first introduction to a holiday without my husband. And that’s the year when the knife began to twist in my heart about the notion of “giving thanks.”

How on earth can you give thanks for what you have when every fiber of your being is still screaming for the one thing—your beloved spouse—that you can’t have? I knew what I was supposed to feel thankful for: my daughter, the love and support of my family and friends, that I was able to stay home full-time with my child, the life insurance money that gave me options, my health, my home, all the good memories and good times I had with my husband, blah, blah, blah. We’ve all heard the litany of blessings for which we should, in our widowed state, bend over backwards and kiss the heavens.

But what always made me want to scream about Thanksgiving was that nowhere did I hear one honest, authentic allowance for grief, no acknowledgment for the wrenching reality I was feeling inside my heart and still facing every day…even especially as it became years after Charley’s death. Nor did I ever hear my husband’s name uttered even once on Thanksgiving. I was alone, it seemed, in my inability to be “thankful.”

It got so bad that, by the third time I had to face Thanksgiving, I boycotted it entirely—a choice I could tell my family didn’t really understand. I refused to spend it with them (after all, it was a year I was supposed to spend it with Charley’s family but wasn’t) and instead I went to a restaurant with a widowed friend of mine from my support group and one of her teenaged sons. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was also the timeframe where I felt at my lowest in grief, the absolute worst of this entire now-four-year journey. I think my misery and anger were the only things that allowed me to rebel that year. I just couldn’t put on that hated mask—you know, the public face, the game face, the “no, everything’s fine…we're good” façade—for one more holiday.

And I had a wonderful dinner with my friend. For the first time on a Thanksgiving, I got to be honest about my mixed feelings about the holiday and how hard it still was every day to live without my best friend and husband, got to hear the same sentiments echoed back to me from my friend.

And the world didn’t end because I honored my grief and my need to be authentic during the holidays. I felt better for taking off that mask for a change. But what was key for me was that I finally had to speak up about it. I had to start mentioning that some holidays—like Mother’s Day, like my daughter’s birthday—are still hard for me every year because my husband was (gasp) still dead and that I couldn’t always do things simply because they were my family’s traditions. I had to be willing to say out loud the things that, earlier in grief, I’d been unable to voice. I had to be brave enough to accept and admit to other people—even ones who didn’t really get it—that I was still grieving, no matter how long it had been since my husband died. I had to be willing to risk upsetting people and feeling self-conscious.

I’m not saying it was easy. But over time, it has worked…for me, anyway. And as the grief got better over time, the holidays have gotten easier to face. With the raging grief mostly an historic footnote these days, I can honestly say that I now can give thanks on this particular holiday. I’m thankful for my beautiful daughter, my wonderful husband, the endless support I still get from the faithful friends who have stuck by my side throughout this journey, my ability to write what I’m feeling, my family.

And I’m thankful for all of you reading, for knowing that I’m part of a larger community, a family of the broken- and healing-hearted who do understand what it’s like for your world to end when you least expect it, what it feels like to live with death, loss, and grief and to still have to learn to live again, every day.

I’m thankful for each and every one of you. I wish we'd never had this reason in common to "meet" in the first place, but I'm so thankful, each and every day, that I'm not alone on this path.

And I'm truly thankful that the grief does get better over time and that Thanksgiving now is far easier than it was four, three, or even two years ago. I'm thankful that I can now give thanks in my heart again, without feeling like a traitor or that I'm being unfaithful to my husband or in my grief.

I wish each of you as much peace as possible over the next weeks.

Michele is on vacation this week. Filling in for her this week is guest blogger Candice. 

Candice was only 27, her husband Charley 28, when he crashed into a pole and died instantly during an organized bicycle race in July 2005. She writes about her widowhood journey on her blog, Crash Course Widow.

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