Tonight, my eleven year old asked me if I was excited for Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays. I looked at her, too exhausted to be anything but honest in my reply. “I am always excited to spend the holidays with you.” I shared with her, choking back tears. “The holidays are now always just a little bit sad for me without having your daddy here.”

Honesty, always, with my kids. I may be their Mama but I am a person and I grieve too. Holidays are a mix of emotions for me. It is important that they know these things. It is important that I give them the space to share, grieve, and feel the excitement that they feel, too.

When I sat down to write tonight, I wondered, what is the one thing I need to hear this holiday season? What came to mind was something shared in my early days of being a widow. It has been something that I have needed to remind myself of every single year:

You should spend the holidays in whatever way feels best for you.

I really wish that this was a lesson I had learned before Mike died. Somewhere I fell into believing that holidays should be heavy with obligation and tradition. There is this running joke about misery and holidays going hand in hand. How dismal! I don’t know about you but I have had enough sadness to last a lifetime! I certainly am not keen on just giving into the fact that my holidays (now, more than ever!) have to be laden with it too.

The truth is, I struggled enjoying the holidays even before Mike died. I had mixed feelings even way back then. I felt the pressures of making people happy, cooking, curating the perfect holiday for my children, finding the best gifts, fitting in all of the experiences…it was exhausting and not always spent with the most joy-filled people or doing what I wanted to do.

When I became a widow, how I spent my holidays along with many other aspects of my life, suddenly came into focus. I no longer was willing to do the things I didn’t want to do, with people who added to my grief. I found that I just needed permission and maybe some suggestions on how to change things for myself.

A few months after Mike died, I sat at a round table with ten or so other widows and widowers at our weekly GriefShare meeting. We were beginning to discuss the impending holidays and it was then that a very elderly woman turned and said to me, “Spend the holidays as you need to.” Several of the other widows and widowers at our table agreed and further leant their advice to me:

Your focus is getting your kids and yourself through this first set of holidays.

And the holidays afterward too.

Give yourself permission to do what you need to do, what feels good for you.

It’s often the second (3, 5, 7th) set of holidays that are unexpectedly difficult so try not to be caught off guard – it’s normal.

Go out of town, make new traditions, it is okay to avoid them too if you need to.

Your kids will remember how you and them felt, not what you did or even who you were with, if you are needing to keep it simple.

Take care of yourself.

I was so thankful for their support and kind advice. I was the only one at our table under 50 and felt cradled by their wisdom. Some were widowers twice over. Others were remarried and still grieving their first spouse. Many had 30, 40, even 50 plus years with their spouses and now found themselves trying to navigate life alone. They shared not only as grieving spouses but also as friends. They had insight and discernment that was priceless.

This first experience in the company and care of fellow widows and widowers offered a glimpse of what I would know to be true. A friendship between widows is unique and beautiful, birthed from ashes, grief and despair. It is life-giving. Breath when your gasping and a safety net when you feel lost and misunderstood.

As I enter the seventh set of holidays without Mike, I am learning that just because I now enter each holiday season with some reservation and a profound sense of loss doesn’t for one minute equate to me not anticipating or enjoying the holiday. Each holiday, each year, just looks a little different for me and my kids and that is okay.