I remember our first Thanksgiving without my mom 11 years ago. We invited her family like we did every year, and we tried to keep the celebration the same. My dad and I were asked to make the mashed potatoes. We peeled ten pounds of potatoes and started boiling them in hot water. But after they had been boiling a long time, we noticed they were not softening. My aunt finally realized our blunder. We never cut the potatoes and were attempting to cook them whole. My aunt and I took out each potato and cut them in smaller sizes so they would cook in time. While we fixed the potential potato catastrophe, I think there were a few other blunders throughout the day. Despite our efforts, it seemed impossible to keep our celebration the same without my mom.
In contrast, after my mother-in-law died, we tried to change things up on our first Thanksgiving. We ordered the Thanksgiving meal instead of cooking, my husband and I ran a race that morning, and my father-in-law bought my kids lego sets to keep them entertained. But our attempt at avoiding the inevitable sadness was misguided at best. My son refused to eat the meal, and my daughter talked about how much she missed her Nana. Despite having a different kind of Thanksgiving, we couldn’t pull our eyes off the empty seat at the table.
Since the death of my mom and mother-in-law, I’ve noticed the first year of holidays are the hardest. As a family, we try to navigate the holidays either as if nothing has changed or as if that person didn’t exist. Both approaches have left us noticing our loved one even more.
If you find yourself missing a loved one or wishing your life looked differently this holiday season, I want to share a few tips that I hope will help you as you prepare for the holiday season.
After my mother-in-law died, I started meeting with a grief counselor. She recommended we spend time as a family discussing how we can honor Nana before the holiday comes. We discuss the moments of the holiday that could be potentially difficult. We then see if there’s anything we can change to make it easier. As a family, we think through activities we would enjoy and ones that would honor my mother-in-law.
Unfortunately I did not start meeting with my counselor until after our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my mother-in-law. But we now apply this concept to every holiday, and it has been very helpful for us as a family. It forces us to think about the holiday ahead of time and brainstorm ways that we can be intentional in honoring my mother-in-law.
Give yourself permission to let the holiday look different
As you spend time thinking about how the holiday will look, give yourself permission to let it look different. Sometimes people find comfort in keeping the holiday the same, and sometimes they find comfort in letting it look different, but either way is ok.
Whether you keep it the same or make it totally different, you and your family will know that your loved one is missing. There’s no way around that truth, unfortunately. Therefore, give yourself permission and grace to do things differently that first year.
But I also caution you to not feel like you must establish new traditions during the first year. In looking back, I realize that I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with new Concannon Family traditions last year. But I realize now, that effort was futile. What works for the first year will be different than what works in the following years.
This year, we ran the Thanksgiving 5K in the morning, but we decided to have a progressive Thanksgiving. We ate appetizers at my husband’s uncle’s apartment, the main meal (cooked by me) at our house, and dessert at my father-in-law’s condo. By moving throughout the day, it gave us a chance to host one another and celebrate the holiday in a different way at each location. We honored my mother-in-law when we decorated my father-in-law’s condo for Christmas using her Christmas decorations. Our tradition may change for next year, but at least we found something that we enjoyed and that honored my mother-in-law this year.
Make space for moments of sadness
As I’ve said, the holidays will likely be hard without your loved one present, especially the first year. But give yourself and your family members grace to embrace the tough moments and allow time for grief to come.
During the past two 5Ks we ran on Thanksgiving, I could hear my mom and my mother-in-law cheering for me. I could hear my mom’s ear piercing whistle and hear my mother-in-law’s loud voice urging me to keep going. Their laughter would fill the sky and evoke tears to flow from my eyes every time. I now see it as my Thanksgiving gift from God. He gives me a chance to remember them, honor them, and hear them one more time. Having time and space for sadness gave me the strength I needed to make it through the rest of the holiday.
I encourage you to carve out time on the holiday where you can get out and go for a walk or just sit alone for a few minutes. Give yourself some space where you can talk to your loved one and have space to grieve. I think it will fill your soul and give you the strength you need for the rest of the holiday.
If you are celebrating the holidays with an empty chair at the table this year or an empty dream, I would love to come alongside you and pray with you. Please contact me either here on the blog or on social media. I pray God will meet you face to face in the planning and preparation this holiday season. May He give you the grace you need to enjoy moments of the holiday.