Embracing the Holidays, Even With a Heavy Heart




Thanksgiving has always been one of my very favorite holidays. Each year this quintessential American holiday arrives, and for most of us it is a day of joy, and hopefully a day of good food, family fun, and dare I say, a little rest. For many, including me and my family, it is also a day of pain and sadness, and even regret for what might have been. Perhaps we might have had a lovely phone chat or even a FaceTime encounter with the one we love who was taken from us all too soon. Maybe our children would have made her lovely cards or paintings; perhaps we would have sent her a brand new school picture to put in the frames on her mantle that would bring a huge smile to her beautiful face. We may have even sat in her graceful presence and said face to face, “Happy Thanksgiving, we love you.”

For all of us who have lost loved ones during the holiday season, we face them year after year with a heavy heart.  Ever since our family’s Thanksgiving weekend was forever changed by the tragic loss of my beloved mother- in-law 6 years ago , I have to admit that Thanksgiving has become a holiday I both still love and also dread.  In a flash, a whole host of family traditions and memories that were just beginning to be built were irrevocably altered.  

My children will not spend the long weekend after Thanksgiving with both sets of grandparents and most of their cousins at my family’s lakehouse.  We will no longer combine the festivities of Turkey Day and Ma Ma’s birthday on November 25th into one big weekend-long celebration.  For the last 5 years, we have alternated going to see his family or mine, and we have enjoyed the holiday as much as possible. 

But we have also walked away and wept. We have blinked away tears and told stories of the Ma Ma, mother and mother-in-law that we wish was still with us. 

This year, we live 1,500 miles away from all our immediate family, so we will not be back in either familiar place.  Our niece is visiting and we got an invitation to spend Thanksgiving Day with extended family in Maryland.  This is quite a stretch for me.  I’ve never not been with my own parents or my in-law’s family for Thanksgiving.  And at first, I expected to feel deeply sad and lost about this change in the holiday plans.  

But you know what?  What I actually feel is a deep breath of relief.  And about 10 seconds later, that made me feel a huge wave of guilt.  Why am I feeling relief?  Well, I think more than relief, what I am feeling is the grace and hope of letting new traditions start, even if it is 6 years later.  

This got me thinking about something else… about how we can choose to let love back into to that shattered, sacred place in our heart that was left when she was taken. Can we ever allow our heart to heal and still hold onto that fierce love of her that occupied that space for so long? I think we have all been believing that we cannot; that we should not. To let go of that darkness and let the light in might mean we have moved on and let go of her. But you see, through my regret of not having the perfect Thanksgiving tradition, I realized something.

In a way, I was choosing the sadness and regret. I was allowing the darkness to stamp out the light. The light of the freshly baked pumpkin bread I can smell in the kitchen. The light of my children’s voices sweetly singing to me as I wake after a restful night. The light of creating new family traditions all our own.

And so, I think I am ready to let go of the darkness Thanksgiving brings. I think I understand now that by choosing hope, we are allowed to let love grow again in that sacred place. It will never replace or regrow the original love for her, but it can be a new soil for a new crop. Made fertile by her unwavering faith and grace, that sad old soil can bring forth blossom once again.  A different kind of love, no doubt, but then again, she would want us to let any love at all grow within, rather than see us make the choice to let the darkness win.  And that grace and eternal hope that she helped bring to each of us that were lucky enough to know her is something I am truly thankful for this year.