Monday, November 16, 2009

When there are no thanks to be given

Leaf in puddle #5

Michele is on vacation this week. Filling in for her this week is guest blogger Candice.

Candice was only 27, her husband Charley 28, when he crashed into a pole and died instantly during an organized bicycle race in July 2005. She writes about her widowhood journey on her blog, Crash Course Widow.

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As any of us widows and widowers know, one of the most trying times of the Annual Widowed Calendar is upon us. It’s impossible to turn on the TV or walk into any store without having it crammed down our gagging, grieving throats:

The holidays.

That formerly joyous, happy, oblivious time of year where we got to focus on fun, holiday frivolity; mindlessly giving thanks for all we have; and spending time with those most important in our lives. But for the widowed—especially for those stumbling through the quicksand of the first year of widowhood—this time of year is downright excruciating.

As a four-year widow, this is my fifth time around for all of these holidays. And I do have to say that they have gotten easier over time. Not consistently and not in a steady linear improvement each year, but by now, they aren’t as painful as they used to be. I can make it through most of the big actual holiday days while smiling and enjoying myself, thinking remarkably little about my husband.

But it certainly hasn’t always been this way. And ironically, over the years I’ve almost struggled more with Thanksgiving than I have Christmas. Four years ago, as a brand-new, four-month-old widow, Thanksgiving 2005 was my first introduction to a holiday without my husband. And that’s the year when the knife began to twist in my heart about the notion of “giving thanks.”

How on earth can you give thanks for what you have when every fiber of your being is still screaming for the one thing—your beloved spouse—that you can’t have? I knew what I was supposed to feel thankful for: my daughter, the love and support of my family and friends, that I was able to stay home full-time with my child, the life insurance money that gave me options, my health, my home, all the good memories and good times I had with my husband, blah, blah, blah. We’ve all heard the litany of blessings for which we should, in our widowed state, bend over backwards and kiss the heavens.

But what always made me want to scream about Thanksgiving was that nowhere did I hear one honest, authentic allowance for grief, no acknowledgment for the wrenching reality I was feeling inside my heart and still facing every day…even especially as it became years after Charley’s death. Nor did I ever hear my husband’s name uttered even once on Thanksgiving. I was alone, it seemed, in my inability to be “thankful.”

It got so bad that, by the third time I had to face Thanksgiving, I boycotted it entirely—a choice I could tell my family didn’t really understand. I refused to spend it with them (after all, it was a year I was supposed to spend it with Charley’s family but wasn’t) and instead I went to a restaurant with a widowed friend of mine from my support group and one of her teenaged sons. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was also the timeframe where I felt at my lowest in grief, the absolute worst of this entire now-four-year journey. I think my misery and anger were the only things that allowed me to rebel that year. I just couldn’t put on that hated mask—you know, the public face, the game face, the “no, everything’s fine…we're good” fa├žade—for one more holiday.

And I had a wonderful dinner with my friend. For the first time on a Thanksgiving, I got to be honest about my mixed feelings about the holiday and how hard it still was every day to live without my best friend and husband, got to hear the same sentiments echoed back to me from my friend.

And the world didn’t end because I honored my grief and my need to be authentic during the holidays. I felt better for taking off that mask for a change. But what was key for me was that I finally had to speak up about it. I had to start mentioning that some holidays—like Mother’s Day, like my daughter’s birthday—are still hard for me every year because my husband was (gasp) still dead and that I couldn’t always do things simply because they were my family’s traditions. I had to be willing to say out loud the things that, earlier in grief, I’d been unable to voice. I had to be brave enough to accept and admit to other people—even ones who didn’t really get it—that I was still grieving, no matter how long it had been since my husband died. I had to be willing to risk upsetting people and feeling self-conscious.

I’m not saying it was easy. But over time, it has worked…for me, anyway. And as the grief got better over time, the holidays have gotten easier to face. With the raging grief mostly an historic footnote these days, I can honestly say that I now can give thanks on this particular holiday. I’m thankful for my beautiful daughter, my wonderful husband, the endless support I still get from the faithful friends who have stuck by my side throughout this journey, my ability to write what I’m feeling, my family.

And I’m thankful for all of you reading, for knowing that I’m part of a larger community, a family of the broken- and healing-hearted who do understand what it’s like for your world to end when you least expect it, what it feels like to live with death, loss, and grief and to still have to learn to live again, every day.

I’m thankful for each and every one of you. I wish we'd never had this reason in common to "meet" in the first place, but I'm so thankful, each and every day, that I'm not alone on this path.

And I'm truly thankful that the grief does get better over time and that Thanksgiving now is far easier than it was four, three, or even two years ago. I'm thankful that I can now give thanks in my heart again, without feeling like a traitor or that I'm being unfaithful to my husband or in my grief.

I wish each of you as much peace as possible over the next weeks.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for a great post. That is exactly what I am hoping for - "as much as peace as possible over the next few weeks". It is the 1st set of holidays after my husbands death - and it is also the beginning of the "death March" for me - my husband went into the hospital the day after Thanksgiving and died at home on January 7th. I will be fighting to stay authentic during this time - and not just put my people-pleasing hat on and say "I'm fine". Because I am so not fine. But posts like yours give me hope for the future, that someday I will be OK again. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Great post Candice. I miss your photos Flikr'ing on the left pane, but otherwise all the things I like about your writing. Thank you.

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  3. Oh my gosh this one has me crying so much,I lost my husband june of 09 and our first holiday without him,I cant imagine that it will get easier but i am so happy you have your heart again thank you so much for sharing God Bless kimi.

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  4. Thank you for your honesty. On September 23rd I lost the man I was going to marry. He was the love I had been searching for all of my life and my soulmate. I have already decided that I am not going to spend Thanksgiving with my family pretending it is a normal holiday. I refuse to wear that mask. Rather, my son and I are going to the beach. I rented a condo for two days and we are going to seek solace by the ocean. While my family may not understand my decision, I know that I am absolutely doing the right thing for me. I want to spend time remembering Brian and not having to apologize for my tears. Not sure what I will do for Christmas. Right now I live one moment at a time. Peace and blessings, Linda

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  5. This is my third holiday season...just recently I was window shopping with some friends and they all wanted to go into a christmas store. I said go ahead, I'll pass. It all came down to the "still?" from a friend. Oh the tone and the look...priceless. What am I thankful for? You and all the amazing widows out there that so get it... that just get it. Oh, and of course my amazing daughter who has her daddy's eyebrows and his beautiful spunk.

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  6. You always say it so well. The holidays are still hard. We love you--Judy, the "other" Mom

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  7. Thank you for writing this post. I TOTALLY know what you are talking about. Not only I am in my 1st year of grief, but I'm really worried that all the special days in my life combined will result in an emotional explosion...

    11/20 (my 1st wedding anniversary without him)
    11/26 (my 1st Thanksgiving without him)
    11/27 (my 1st birthday without him)
    12/25 (my 1st Christmas without him)
    12/26 (he died on this day last year)

    I have been feeling ok, even pretty good on some days, with lots of improvements up until this time of the year. I am so afraid that all these special days combined will be like a tsunami, crashing me into million pieces....

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