Touched by loss. Empowered through community.

Giving thanks, sort of. No, really.

Monday, November 19, 2012
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This week marks Thanksgiving, the secular holiday commonly observed with grand meals and grateful hearts. Schools and offices close, and airports bustle with hurried travelers. On Thursday, families will gather together to give thanks. Prepare yourself, people. The pressure is on to be “thankful.”

I call this time of year the season of my discontent. Maybe you do too. For those just beginning the grief journey, holidays can remind you of everything that’s been lost. I’m further along now. I smile when I think about Thanksgiving mornings spent lazing around the house, my husband whittling away in the kitchen. He was a wonderful cook who’d spend hours watching the Food Network and Jacques Pépin, experimenting and searching for the perfect brine. If I close my eyes, I can almost see him in the kitchen, mashing potatoes or baking biscotti, the dog by his side waiting for droppings.

Our last Thanksgiving together, in 2008, was pretty much uneventful. By the weekend, the kids were with us, and my husband was eager to play around in the kitchen. He decided to make his wheat-crust, Roman-style pizza – a family favorite in our house. He’d been perfecting this recipe since our Italy trip; the process is time-consuming and takes the better part of two days. And so the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he drove to three grocers to find the freshest ingredients; he meticulously kneaded the wheat-crust dough. Around noon the next day, he died.

Soon thereafter, mid-free fall, I did something terrible. I threw his homemade dough in the garbage to free up space for the onslaught of food that began arriving when word got out. I should have known better and put the dough in the freezer. I should have saved it. But I didn’t know better. I didn’t know anything. Actually, I knew one thing. I knew my husband’s funeral program should include a sampling of his favorite recipes -- the wheat-crust pizza, sangria from the previous summer, our favorite Christmas cookies, and his holiday biscotti. And so it did.

But on that day, the day after he died, I threw my husband’s dough in the trash, and then went outside to get some air. To my horror, a Christmas tree lot, accompanied by piped-in carols from the 1950s, had mysteriously popped up across the street from my house. It was as if the universe was giving me the finger. Sure, I had a lot to think about, what with my husband dying and all, but my mind was ablaze with vengeful thoughts of torching those trees. When friends would ask if there was anything they could do, which they did so frequently in those early days, I’d suggest getting rid of the tree lot, Tony Soprano-style. Its proximity made it impossible to escape the sights, smells and sounds of the holidays.

Those first days and weeks are now a blur. We began grief counseling. There was the funeral. I went back to work. My father-in-law had a massive stroke, and was being kept alive by a ventilator by the time we gathered at my in-laws for Christmas Eve dinner. That this dinner even happened shows how embedded holiday traditions can be. I attended begrudgingly, not knowing how not to go. I knew my husband’s absence would be palpable, and it was. I spent much of the evening in tears.

My father-in-law passed away, and the holiday season of 2008 finally came to a close. My stepdaughter, then 19, noted with wisdom beyond her years that we’d never again have to experience the sorrow of that season. She was right. Truth be told, it had been tortuous. My grief came right away and all at once. I imploded.  Almost immediately, l felt breathless and panicky and scared out of my mind, as if I might be drowning. I was suffocated by strangers wishing me, “Happy holidays!” at what seemed like every turn. I’d burst into tears anywhere, anytime – on the el, at the office, and while walking the dog by the tree lot and its happy-go-lucky shoppers. I hid my broken self that season by pulling an oversized hat down low over my eyes. I wanted to be invisible. No wonder previous generations of widows had draped themselves in black, their faces veiled. The veils weren’t about fashion; they hid the mourner and warned people to stay away, to keep their “happy holidays” and their tree lots to themselves.

This would be the fourth season of my discontent, except I’m no longer discontented. The hat that sits low over my eyes isn’t meant to hide my widowed self; I wear it because it’s cute. The tree lot that will be back next week won’t bother me as it once did. I may even buy my tree there. Without question, my body senses the approaching anniversary of my husband’s death; it knows something terrible happened right after Thanksgiving. Yet the intensity of the body memory isn’t what it was, even last year or the year before.

It occurs to me now that something magical also happens this time of year. People remember. They talk about Jim; they share wonderful stories with me and my stepkids. People use Jim’s recipes to bake Christmas cookies for their friends and families, proof enough that his nurturing spirit lives on. A friend recreates his holiday biscotti; this, in particular, is a special treat I look forward to every year. For these kindnesses, and for surviving the season of my discontent, I am grateful. And so on Thursday I’ll be giving thanks, sort of. No, really.


If you plan on a tree, I think buying it at the lot across the way may be fitting.

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