I’m a 33-year-old-widow. Here’s what I’ve learned about getting through the holidays.
I’m not really one for how-to guides. I’m more of a trial and error kind of person. Over the years, that approach has led to a number of small kitchen fires (including one I put out by filling my mouth with water and spraying it over the oven), a giant hole in the wall where the TV used to be mounted (oops), and dying my hair jet black during one ill-advised at-home salon experience while studying abroad (turns out my Italian was not good enough to understand the difference between 15 and 50 minutes to wait for the dye to set in). These tasks weren’t ever too risky for trial and error. They make for funny stories, while feeling inconvenient at best or embarrassing at worst in the moment. But these simple tasks are really the only things that how-to guides really work for. The harder moments — the ones where you desperately need advice — are the ones you’re more often left to navigate on your own.
I was 30 years old when my husband was killed. It was a beautiful July Saturday when I got a call from his cell phone number, a nurse on the other end of the line, telling me that Jeff, my husband of two years and six weeks, had been hit by a semi-truck while riding his bike in Washington, D.C. From that moment onward, I was overwhelmed with things I had no idea how to do. How would I get to the hospital as fast as possible, while crying this hard, in my pajamas and on crutches because I was recovering from a surgery of my own? How would I talk to doctors, who would use words and phrases no one could understand without a medical degree, to make sure Jeff was getting the right care? And then, once we were told he died, how could I get myself off the hospital waiting room couch knowing I had just held his hand for the last time? How would I let people know he had died, plan a funeral, close out his accounts, keep working, or exist in our shared apartment without him?
This holiday season is my third without Jeff. The first was shocking and strange, as I went through the old traditions without him by my side. It felt confusing — was I still supposed to open presents, or watch Love Actually, his favorite holiday movie, and laugh? The second holiday season was worse than the first, as the reality of loss hit harder. Now it was painfully obvious that Jeff’s absence hadn’t just been a fluke — he didn’t happen to be traveling the previous year. He didn’t have some other plans. In reality, he wouldn’t open presents next to me on the couch and he wouldn’t laugh at Love Actually ever again. He was gone.
But this year, while I expected to be grieving, I did not expect to be living a shared experience of grief at this scale. Last year, I thought that maybe the third holidays without him would feel like my new normal. That I’d be bracing myself for feeling lonely around the Thanksgiving table as my family and I sat and ate in our dining room. But this year, I’m not just missing Jeff, I’m subsumed in the communal grief felt in every corner of the world. Nearly 1.5 million loved ones are gone due to COVID-19. And on top of that, we’re grieving other losses caused by the pandemic. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of your regular traditions, or the loss of a job as the pandemic hits this country’s economy hard. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of company if you’re spending the holidays on your own, or simply the loss of more stable emotions as COVID-19 exacerbates or creates mental health challenges.
If I’ve learned anything from becoming a widow, it’s that there is no “right answer” for how to grieve or take care of yourself. There’s no way to write a definitive how-to for spending the holidays while grieving. Everyone does it differently, and hopefully they find what works for them. But, in the spirit of giving, I wanted to share some of the ways that I got through the holidays over the last two years. These aren’t based in science, or anything except my own experiences and knowing what felt good when everything else felt bad.
1. Do something different.
The year that Jeff was killed, there was nothing I dreaded more than waking up on Christmas morning and falling into the same routine my family had each Christmas. The idea of walking out to the kitchen without his bed head flopping around the living room, then sitting on the couch to open a present over breakfast with no one next to me, was unbearable. I knew I wanted to do something different, and have something to look forward to. So that year, I decided to call up an off-duty commercial fisherman and see if he’d take my family out for a boat ride at sunrise, where we’d enjoy coffee and bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches we had prepared the night before — a food we rarely, if ever, ate as a family. The excitement of having something different to look forward to, even figuring out how to keep our breakfast sandwiches warm until we were ready to eat them on the boat, gave me a break from an otherwise painful day. We still opened presents once we got back, and I felt his absence deeply in that moment. But it was a little better than expected as we all came down from the high of seeing a Christmas sunrise on the water. Doing something different, to ease the pain on an otherwise extraordinarily difficult day, made a world of difference.
2. Ask for what you need.
I found people were fascinated by what I would do around the holidays. No one had met a 30-year-old widow before, and they certainly didn’t know how she’d plan to spend the first or second holidays. Well-meaning friends would ask what I was doing for the holiday every time I saw them. And while it was sweet that they asked, I really didn’t want to repeat my plans, or what I was trying to plan, during every conversation. So, in the days and weeks before the major holidays (which include Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s in my house), if I had plans to see someone, I’d send them a text before we got together to tell them that I appreciated that they might ask me what my plans were for the holiday, but I really didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, I’d say, let’s talk about your plans, because I wanted to hear about their kids, their family gathering. And nearly every time, my boundaries and the request were respected.
At first, I was surprised. But actually, it makes perfect sense. People want to help, but often they don’t know how, especially around something as messy and individual as grief. Giving them something specific to do to help ease my pain — in this case, share a story about their plans with their kids — allowed me to feel more comfortable, and it made them feel like they were helping (because they were). If someone asks you how you want to spend your time, or if you need anything, and you know the answer, try to tell them.
3. It’s OK to smile or laugh.
I remember the first Thanksgiving without Jeff was spent at our family friends’ house. My family didn’t want to cook that year, so we were adopted by another family who took on the entire meal themselves. At the gathering, we sat and talked while enjoying Spotted Cow beers smuggled in from Wisconsin via a priest with the beer hook-up. Hearing stories about how this man of the cloth annually transported Spotted Cow across state lines (I think an actual crime in Wisconsin), made me laugh and smile. I remember later feeling guilty, like I wasn’t supposed to have fun at this first major holiday without Jeff. But I was having fun, genuinely. I felt supported and in a safe space to laugh along with the friend telling the story, so I did. Looking back on that moment, if I had known about the dark days of grief still ahead, I would have told myself to laugh even harder. Finding lighter moments while grieving is difficult, so try to remember to enjoy them when they come.
4. It’s OK to cry.
Over Christmas, neighbors invited us to their house for dinner. Hearing about my desire to do something different over the holidays, they ordered Thai food and a number of dishes that I hadn’t tried before (and that my parents certainly hadn’t ever heard of). The event was sweet and thoughtful. Mrs. Cohn buzzed through the kitchen, opening each takeout container across the kitchen island, explaining each dish in detail, providing that distraction I thought I needed. My mom followed her to each container, over-enthusiastically asking questions about each of the orders, trying to make it the “fun and different” night I wanted (“Oh, larb! What’s larb? What does ‘larb’ mean? Where is larb from? Kaylie, have you had larb before? Is larb a carb?”).
As we sat down to dinner, the conversation was light and full of laughter across the dining room table. It was exactly the holiday scene I had said I wanted — easy, with friends, adventuring through food — crafted so thoughtfully with me in mind. But for reasons I can’t explain, I just felt heavy. The weight of Jeff’s absence and my uncertain future came crushing down on me as I sat there, moving noodles from one side of the plate to the other. I tried to talk, but knew if I did, I’d burst into tears. I just wanted to be alone and I just wanted to cry really, really hard.
I quietly let my mom know I had to leave. I could tell she was a little disappointed that the night she and Mrs. Cohn created wasn’t supporting me in the way I needed. But mostly she knew I wasn’t doing well and understood I had to do whatever felt right to me. Mrs. Cohn, possibly the world’s coolest mom, totally “got it.” No hard feelings, no big expression of concern, she just let me do what I had to do: feel and cry and leave without judgement. I left the dining room, discreetly slipped out front door, and walked home, crying.
No one had done anything wrong, it was truly the only kind of evening I wanted. But grief can be wildly inconvenient, taking over at the most unexpected moments. The times I’ve tried to force my way through grief haven’t ended well. Usually, it just means it feels harder and bigger the next time. Try to feel the hard moments when they come, even if they hit you over chicken larb (which, Mom, is not a carb).
5. Be as unimpressive as you want.
This year, I’ve had more people come to me than usual asking for advice on how to handle various types of grief. I’ve been talking to people who lost spouses and moms, to people who are confronting depression for the first time, and to people who lost jobs and feel like they’re floating with nothing to grab on to. I don’t have any particularly good answers, but I am public about my own process around loss. So we talk and I try to help. Last week, I knew I wanted to write the essay you’re reading right now. I figured maybe sharing my thoughts would be useful to others, especially during this unprecedented holiday season.
I told myself that I’d finish and publish this piece on Monday night, a few days before Thanksgiving. But then Monday night came and I felt sad. The anxiety I’ve felt this year around loved ones contracting COVID-19 hit me as I sat on the couch with my laptop open, calling me to finish this essay. The “impressive” thing to do would be to meet my self-imposed deadline, hit publish, and send out this piece with enough time for people to read it on the schedule I established earlier in the week. But instead, I watched “Happy Birthday Kim”, the episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians celebrating Kim Kardashian West’s 40th birthday. I watched while eating ice cream with old chocolate chips from the back of the cabinet and blue frosting from a tube. I fell asleep on the couch and woke up Tuesday morning to a blue mouth and tongue, and the laptop still open on the table in front of me.
Sometimes, you won’t do what you think you’re supposed to. Maybe you’ll do what you set out to accomplish later (I did finish the essay!), or maybe you won’t (I said I’d go on my favorite hike on Tuesday, but I might go shopping instead). During the holidays, and really any time, it’s ok to not do that “impressive” thing. I’d argue it’s more impressive to listen to your needs in the moment (even if it ends with a blue tongue).
This year, the holidays will look really different. Not by design, of course, but because of the times we’re in. I expect I’ll encounter new challenges at this first Thanksgiving without my parents. I don’t know if or when grief might hit, but I did make a plan to spend time with a person who makes me laugh hard, smile big, and feel the tough moments when I need to. I might try and find a how-to guide to make a floral centerpiece for the table (should be an interesting result from the lady who usually wraps bouquets for friends in paper towels and tinfoil). And I guess no matter what, I’ll learn more lessons for next year.