by Leslie Morgan Steiner
The day after my mother died in April, the hospice grief counselor came to my house. Hospice workers know what they are talking about, so I listened assiduously to her advice. I clung fiercely to her parting words: “No one is prepared for grief. It’s not a competition and no one does it ‘right.’ Everyone, even in the same family, grieves differently. All the different ways people grieve are okay.”
My daughter felt alternatively guilty and explosively emotional, angry I hadn’t let her come to the funeral. My youngest worried about a ghost haunting our house. My son said little. I was relieved, heart-broken, shocked – sometimes in the space of the same hour. It was immensely comforting to know we were all following our personal paths through sadness.
A few months after the funeral, my sister spent six weeks in my mother’s house, carefully sifting through 75 years of junk and treasures. I could barely handle three days there. My brother didn’t come at all. And that was okay. We were all grieving in our own ways.
As Thanksgiving approached, I tried to remember the hospice advice. I even went to a four-hour bereavement workshop at the hospice headquarters, one of the saddest gatherings I’ve ever attended. One couple had lost a day-old infant. A woman my mother’s age had lost her daughter and her daughter-in-law within the same week. A childless woman had nursed her husband through four years of terminal cancer. Although I cried at the table along with everyone else, by comparison my sadness felt bearable.
As we discussed how to celebrate the holidays without our beloveds, hospice reiterated that the “first” holidays are different for everyone. Some people become obsessed with keeping every tradition the same to honor the dead. Others need to go to a hotel or leave the country to distract themselves. All okay.
Thanksgiving was always special to Mom. My mind is filled with countless turkeys eaten around a battered single-plank table that now graces my dining room. She preferred we come to her each year, even though turkey is probably the only meal I make that’s better than her cooking. My secret is taking the turkey out of the oven before the cookbooks say it’s done: you gotta know your limits.
I decided this year to get out of dodge. For the first time ever, we went to the ocean for Thanksgiving. The beach was cold and windy, the waves ferocious and slate-blue. Along the same streets that are traffic-jammed all summer long, dry leaves scratched and skittered across the empty asphalt.
In exuberant excess, I cooked a 25-pound turkey and mashed three dozen potatoes for six people. The bird was moist and delicious. The mashed potatoes turned an odd gray-brown shade but tasted yummy. We stuffed ourselves for three days. I didn’t call my siblings or my mother’s relatives, also going through Thanksgiving without Mom for the first time ever.
I imagined the hospice lady telling me that was okay.
Sometimes the highest form of comfort is to admit that holidays may never be the same again, and that the time has come to invent a new way to celebrate and to mourn.