I had to get a few things from Walmart earlier today, and the store was filled with displays for Thanksgiving and Christmas already. In fact, any store you go into has the same advertising going on. I was pushing the cart along the doll aisle looking for a birthday gift for one of my granddaughters, when all of a sudden it hit me. Grief. Full blown grief! I dug deep into my handbag to find a tissue to wipe the tears that were dripping down my face. “Where did this come from?” I asked myself. I wasn’t expecting these emotions to come knocking on the door of my heart — not this many years later.
But grief had arrived, and that’s just how it happens. Grief from child loss shows up at the most unpredictable moments.
I can still remember the first Thanksgiving following the death of my thirteen-year-old sister Carmella. She died on June 5. The next big events following her death were birthdays — my younger sister turned seven on June 16, my dad (who wasn’t living with us) on June 25, and then my sixteenth birthday on June 29. There were no celebrations, no cards, no cakes. We were all in shock, and honestly, I don’t remember much of anything about those first several months following the death of Carmella.
But, Thanksgiving was different. I was so tired of life feeling “dark.” I guess that’s the only word to describe it. My dad and mom had divorced when I was fourteen, so he wasn’t at home. My living sister was only seven, so she didn’t understand much about what was going on. And, there was my mom. My poor, broken mom. She didn’t get out of bed much at all. She laid in bed and cried for hours on end — sometimes it was loud, moaning crying. Other times choking sobs. And, the scariest of all were the times when she’d lock the bedroom door and wouldn’t answer for hours. I was so afraid that she, too, had died.
She drank heavy during those months following my sister’s death. She began in the morning, and she continued all day long. I would put marks on the calendar which meant “drunk” and every day of the month had a mark. She was sick, depressed, and needed so much help. My mom’s heart was broken. But, sadly, that was during a time where the word “grief counselor” was unheard of — in fact, I’m not even sure I ever heard the word grief spoken in our home.
So, I was determined to make this a “happy Thanksgiving” for us. Traditionally, we always went to my grandparents’ home on Thanksgiving, but this year my grandmother wasn’t in the mood, either. She didn’t feel like fixing a turkey, but after some begging from me, she finally relented and said she would. Finally, our family would feel whole again!
I had to attend a football game on Thanksgiving day because I was in the school’s color guard, so immediately following the game, we were to go to my grandmother’s for Thanksgiving dinner. I was so happy, and so was my little sister! We were looking forward to a bit of “normal” — something we hadn’t had for a long time now.
When I got home from the game, my mom was in bed. She had been sobbing all morning, and it took me a long time to coax her to get up so that we could go eat a turkey dinner. More than the food, I just wanted to be around people who weren’t crying. I wanted my mom, my sister Ruthie, and I to experience a few hours without tears.
Because my mom had been drinking, I did the driving and she just sat and stared out of the car window with tears rolling down her face. “Gosh, I wish she could just feel better! Please, God, help me to know how to make my mom feel just a little better!”
When we walked into my grandmother’s, the turkey was all ready to be carved. The house smelled amazing! The aromas of roasted turkey mixed with freshly baked apple pie and pumpkin pies, and there were hot biscuits being pulled from the oven! It was just as I remembered it!
There was only one thing wrong. My sister Carmella was missing and her absence hit us all like a ton of bricks! We weren’t ready to face “normal” yet — none of us were! My mother went running to the livingroom where she sat in a corner and cried. My grandmother went to her favorite rocking chair by the window where she could see the birds and cling to her bible. My grandfather went outside and sat under the old grape arbor. And, my sister Ruthie and I — we stood there not knowing what to do just holding onto each other. We were all so lost and felt so alone and broken!
That first Thanksgiving following the death of my sister was miserable. What did I know about grief? Nothing! I just wanted us to be some kind of a family again, but it was too soon. The pain was too raw. It was horrible. My mother was in no frame of mind to even begin to think about the holidays. She needed to be comforted and allowed to cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears left. We were a broken family in grief and there was no road map to tell us how to get out.
It took several years for us to get to a place where we attempted Thanksgiving dinner again. And, even then it was different.
What I didn’t understand at the young age of sixteen was that grieving is necessary. It’s a normal reaction to loss. I wanted to push our family quickly back into a place of “normal” again, but I didn’t yet have it figured out that things would never be the same as they were before. We each needed to do our grief work. And, that was going to take a long, long time.
Grief from losing a child never ends — not completely. How can it? Our child was part of our heart — part of us. When that part is missing, we ache. We hurt. We feel pain. Yes, life does go on, and in time we will learn to smile through our tears. But, we can’t force grief to leave. It is our constant companion. Sometimes it leaves us alone for a while, then returns to let us know it is still around. We learn to respect grief. Make room for grief. And, in the end, we learn to live with grief.
If you are about to face the first Thanksgiving without your child, please do what is best for you — even if that means staying home and crying tears of sorrow. Allow your heart to guide you. You’ll know when the time is right to re-enter life again, and you’ll know how to do it. Give yourself the precious gift of time to grieve. Maybe McDonald’s will be your Thanksgiving dinner this year, and that’s okay. Always do what is best for you!
Holidays are always difficult, painful and dreaded for those who have experienced child loss. And, the grief can sneak up and hit you hard when you least expect it — even fifty years later in the doll aisle of Walmart!
When siblings are grieving, it really complicates the dynamics in a household. My mom was in no condition to help me with my grief, and I sure didn’t know how to help her! What we needed were some friends to come up alongside of us and say, “Hey, I’m here. I’m going to help you get through this first Thanksgiving.” But, I think people often get busy with their own lives and forget that the holidays are terribly painful for those who are alone in their grief.
Grief is so hard and so scary when you’re doing it alone!
It is my hope and prayer that as Thanksgiving approaches, you have a plan in place for how you’ll spend the day. Prepare for it. Do something different. Don’t try to keep the same family traditions that you had before the death of your child because that won’t work. And, don’t be afraid to call on others for help! Facing the holidays alone can be terrifying! Lean on others for help and support. And, remember that of the anticipation of the holiday is far worse than the holday.
My love and prayers to each one,