The first holiday season without my husband was a bit of a train wreck. It all began with Halloween – my first major holiday as a widow. I remember walking into a craft store and being horrified by the display of death surrounding me at every angle. It was as if I had stepped into the scariest haunted house I’d ever seen. The room began spinning, my heart started pounding, and I couldn’t feel my arms anymore. Halloween used to be my favorite holiday, but suddenly I was far less than amused. Forgetting what I had come to the store for, I turned around and began blocking out what I had just seen as I rushed back to my car.
As I drove home in tears, only one word repeated in my mind: alone. Alone, alone, alone. I walked three flights of stairs to my new apartment, turned the key to an empty home and walked over to my couch where I melted into the cushions. I shook my head and thought to myself, how will I survive the holidays?
Time blurred by and before I knew it, October crept into November and Thanksgiving was just around the corner. I had no plan. There were dinner invitations but I hadn’t decided on anything. I felt a heavy obligation to appease the masses and accept the invites given to me but what I truly wanted was to be alone, and possibly ignore the day altogether. It was ironic – wallowing in self-pity at the realization of being alone but choosing to be alone at the same time. What can I say? Grief is messy.
Instead of gleefully anticipating the upcoming turkey feast, all I felt was impending doom. “Thanksgiving is coming, Thanksgiving is coming”, was repeating on an infinite loop in my mind. I like to think that I shared the same sense of dread with live turkeys around the country. I couldn’t stop the holiday from arriving and my heart continued to pound as I allowed my mind to be preoccupied with this day.
Five days before Thanksgiving a miracle occurred. I came down with a terrible cold which turned into pneumonia. With this newfound excuse to turn down invitations to dinner, I felt incredible relief, and bonus, I could forget about the day altogether through sleep and my new friend – Tylenol with codeine (Scout’s honor I stuck to my dosage!).
When the day arrived I was definitely in a daze but surprised by how coherent I was. Darn it. I could feel the weight of the holiday. I tried going back to sleep but my mind was now wide awake. I panicked and felt instant regret realizing that I had planned nothing. With no structure to the day, my mind was free to wreak havoc on my heart. Sweet memories of past Thanksgivings arose and were smashed in the same moment, with the reminder that my husband was gone.
Thankfully my thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. Oh, how I wished it was my husband, returning from the store with some forgotten thanksgiving item we needed. Instead, it was my in-laws and whether I liked it or not, they were coming in with their southern charm to visit with me. We reminisced for awhile and then I sent them home, for fear they would contract my illness. Their visit lifted my spirits and after they left, I was determined to find a way to mark this Thanksgiving. I shuffled over to the fridge and grinned as I pulled out a cold can of Coke Zero – my husband’s favorite drink. I poured two glasses, one for me, one for him. I toasted his glass and said, “thanks for the memories”.
With even the smallest plan I could have guided my fragile heart more carefully throughout the day and enjoyed more than a glass of soda. There’s no way to fully know what my emotions would have been like, but I might have spared myself the added emotions of regret, panic, and vulnerability. It was a hard lesson learned. I couldn’t blame myself though, I was learning to ride the grief bike and there was going to be a lot of crashing along the way.
Just before Christmas an early present had arrived through a phone call. It was my peer mentor, Kaitlin. She had been assigned to me through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S.). This military support group paired survivors with a peer mentor who had been through a similar situation and was roughly the same age. Kaitlin was contacting me for the first time and her call came at the perfect moment, when I desperately needed holiday advice. I still had Christmas and New Years to go, and I didn’t know how I was going to get through it.
Kaitlin was incredible. She was five years into her widow journey and she seemed so seasoned. She knew exactly what to say and how to help me. When she asked me about my current obstacles, I brought up my Thanksgiving fiasco. I told her about the anxiousness I felt before the holiday had even come and the disaster that unfolded the day of. I was nervous to see what my first Christmas alone was going to be like. I couldn’t even fathom how I would survive our wedding anniversary, or even worse, his death date. She then said something that has stayed with me to this very day:
“Usually the anticipation of the day is worse than the actual day itself.”
She then went on to explain that making a plan for acknowledging the holiday would remove the anticipation, and I would be surprised by how peaceful the day could actually be. She suggested I create a few new traditions for Christmas and find one visual way to remember my husband. This would allow me to live in the moment while honoring my past. Her advice was gold, and my Christmas holiday turned out to be perfectly fine.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – day to day living is hard enough as a widow, and grief leaves no room for planning, let alone holiday planning! It’s hard enough just getting out of bed in the morning, right?
Planning is a struggle, but I’m here to tell you it can be done! Over the past seven years I’ve seen the difference between the holidays I’ve planned out and the ones I haven’t (some years it still sneaks up on me and I forget to plan). A plan, even in its smallest form, is the greatest gift you can give yourself when it comes to important dates and holidays. I hope you give it a try this holiday season.