Three years ago, we spent Thanksgiving break with our friends Becky and Josh in an old farmhouse in Delaware owned by Josh’s family. All of our kids were really little and so we spent a lot of time dealing with their needs, but we also drank wine and sat around the dinner table each night for many hours. One night, we spent much of the evening talking about Josh’s brother, Chris, and the teenage antics he pulled during his gap year between high school and college. Josh’s mom told a particularly funny story about Chris and we all laughed and laughed.
I remember thinking later how amazing it was that the conversation took place, because Chris died in a car accident just before he was about ready to leave for college.
But he didn’t go away from that table. I still remember the way that his uncle’s eyes lit up as he described their travels together. Chris wasn’t there in a physical sense, but I left that dinner thinking that I knew who he had been. I left that table thinking of Chris.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Josh’s parents over the years, and I’ve always been impressed with how they talked about their youngest son. This choice – to talk about someone who had died – gave me the space to talk about my mom too, something that I found wholly refreshing.
We weren’t at the farmhouse last Thanksgiving. Shawn was too sick, and we stayed home because we thought he needed to spend the break recovering. Our friends Beth and Brian had us over for Thanksgiving dinner and I made a great side dish with farro and cauliflower and lots of spices. Shawn was in terrible pain, and he didn’t eat my food, or really any other food.
But I do remember him sitting at the table on Thanksgiving night a year ago, laughing as he joked about his illness. Shawn never took anything too seriously, and since we didn’t yet know he had cancer, he still wanted to keep things light. Tommy, who was still very clingy at age 3, sat on his lap for much of the meal. Given the choice, Tommy always wanted to sit with Shawn, and that night he was happy just to be next to the parent he loved the most.
Two days later, Shawn was admitted to the ER for intense stomach pain. It would take another week before we really knew what was wrong. So right now – this time period around Thanksgiving this year – well, I’ll say this: it’s not easy.
Maybe that’s why Becky and Josh invited me back up to the farm for Thanksgiving this year. Or maybe they wanted me up here because our kids love each other. Or maybe I came to the farm because they are my dear friends and they just wanted to hang out with my family.
Whatever the reason, we all ended up at their farmhouse this week – me, my kids, my dad, Josh and Becky and their kids, and Josh’s parents. It was loud and messy and cold. But I felt warm with everyone around. Yesterday, as we prepped Thanksgiving dinner, we talked a lot about loss, and about the difficulty of moving forward each day after losing someone so close to you. We also talked about the holidays, and the desire to avoid being home when someone is gone and everything is suddenly different. “It never really goes away,” Josh’s mom said to me. “The pain, I mean. It’s been 18 years since Chris died, and sometimes I still get teared up thinking of him.”
I knew exactly what she meant. The rawness of it all may start to fade, but the pain is never erased.
The meal that night was delicious and we told funny stories and talked about the kids. I got in bed a bit early, but stayed up late texting a friend about all of the complicated emotions of the day. Still, even laying in a cold room all alone, I felt comforted by the love I felt in the house.
Around 2 am, Claire came in my room. “Tommy is crying for you,” she said.
I went into his room. Tommy was in his bed with the covers over his head. He was sobbing and screaming, “I want mama!”
I picked him up. His nose was snotty and he had tears streaming down his face. “Do you want to sleep with me?” I asked him. He said yes, and I carried him to my room.
I tried to get him to lay down, but he was still so shaken up that he couldn’t stop crying. So I took him into my arms and rocked him like he was a tiny baby. “It’s okay,” I said repeatedly.
Slowly, his body relaxed, and he snuggled his body next to mine.
I tried to go back to sleep. But all I could think about was that three years ago on Thanksgiving, the exact same thing had happened. Tommy had woken up in the same farmhouse, upset. I brought him into my room. But instead of snuggling next to me, he went into his father’s arms. His favorite parent.
I felt my heart sink and I thought about what Josh’s mom said earlier that day. “The pain never really goes away.”
That night, I didn’t mind too much having Tommy’s sweaty body smashed up next to mine. He needed me.
And I needed him.
Is it ok to say that I am not looking forward to the next two months of blogposts, and yet I will be desperately reading your blogposts? Anniversaries suck. The first anniversary sucks the most. I was thinking the other day about how it was one year ago that Shawn and I were in his office and he was explaining his intestinal infection and how they had tried a series of antibiotics. Next week I go out the the Reagan Defense Forum, which is where I was when I got the news of his diagnosis. Shawn and I had gone to the Reagan Forum a few years before. He was the one who got me hooked on AirBnB’s and after the place we had out there, we swore we would come back the same house in the future and do it all again. My thoughts are with you and yours as you enter this period of time. Much love.
Wow – that’s a crazy story, because I didn’t remember him even going in to work in the last few weeks of November, but I’m sure he did. He was so so tough. And yes, I’m sure the next few months are going to be filled with tough blog posts – though I’m hoping to also have some in there that are about the joy of the season, if I can manage to enjoy it at all. Thanks so much for reading!
Hello again Marjorie, it’s Diane (Di) from the other side of the world again. I actually live in the capital city of Australia, Canberra. I also worked in a similar situation as Shawn, as does my husband and our eldest son, so I understand your life with Shawn somewhat. I felt the need to write to you today as I am well aware that anniversaries and events of last year are about to rain down on you. I think about you quite often, which is totally weird really. But I just wanted to let you know that you have moved me so very much, and that I wish with all my heart that you didn’t ever have to write this blog. But here we are. I cannot imagine the loss of my husband, but I can empathise with you. I have lost both my parents, that was awful and I am crying as I write this. Grief is so unpredictable and you never quite know when it will strike you. I have also suffered greatly with the loss of two of my boys. My first pregnancy was a twin pregnancy, but I only brought one tiny premature baby home from the hospital. His identical twin Joshua, didn’t take his first breath. That still makes my heart ache and I get that huge lump in my throat and then the tears, huge tears just start falling. No, that grief has never gone away and every year on my eldest son’s birthday, I always silently remember his brother who should be standing by his side. More recently, this past 20 months or so I have been delivered another cruel loss. My youngest son, had a child with a young woman (very young and very uneducated). We embraced our grandchild with all the love in the world. We kitted out the nursery, gently got to know this precious little man, who looks so much like my eldest son. We paid and organised their wedding on 2nd of December last year. With great joy they announced that my granddaughter was on the way. Then, without warning the young woman who is now his wife, and her entire dysfunctional family decided that we had no place in their lives. It is very convoluted and confusing. But my heart is totally broken. I’ve not only lost another son, but a grandson and granddaughter who I have never even met or held. I’m so sorry for rambling on like this, but I really am thinking of you right now. I wish you strength as these next few months approach. Grief is always just below the surface, and I have no advice to offer on how to deal with it. I do have a beautiful counsellor who has been seeing me for many years, and that does eventually help you to cope with what life has so cruelly dealt to you. Now I am sitting here debating whether to post this or not. But I know that you do like to know that people are reading your beautiful writing and silently offering you support from across many kilometres and oceans. Much love x
I’m SO GLAD you posted this! Thank you so much for sharing your pain and for taking the time to write it all out for me. In an odd way, it’s comforting to know that other people get through difficult circumstances – and that we can survive. I am so sorry about your son and grandchildren, and I will hold out hope that they can someday some around. You are right – “Grief is always just below the surface.” Thinking of you and your family.
These coming holidays will be very rough as will January for you, but you are surrounded by a lot of love and support. It’s never enough, though, and sadly, you just have to live through it. That first Christms for us was spent away from home. My daughter, her husband and I went away and for me, it was the worst thing I could have done. Looking back, I would have been better off at home, but that is what is right for me. Every holiday since then has been at home and as painful as it is to look at that empty chair, it’s harder for me to be away and return to an empty house. As you wrote in your entry, it is so important to tell the stories…for your children, those of their father; not just to discuss those memories they have of him, but also for them to learn about what he was like as a child, teenager and young adult before you ever even met him and before they were even born. Talk about him constantly. My grandson was not born until 13 months after my husband died so he never had a chance to meet him. He would have loved this child so much who has his sense of humor now and reminds me so much of him. They are here for Thanksgiving and now that he’s 3 and can hold conversations with us, out of the blue he said, “My daddy’s parents are Nana and Grandad.” I asked hm who his mommy’s parents are and he said, “Just you.” It broke my heart. Although he has a book I had written and gave as a gift when he was born all about his Grandpop, and that he is talked about, it’s obvious it’s not being done enough. I had a long, tearful talk with my daughter about this tonight and the fact that this smart, insightful, curious little boy is going to want to know where his Grandpop is and all that had happened. He already asks a lot of questions about why the flowers he planted this summer have shriveled up and why the trees lose their leaves. My daughter’s always had a dfficult time talking about her dad and tends to keep busy to push the sorrow away which In my opinion is harmful, but I hope our grandson will “know” his Grandpop and to understand how much alike they are. Both have been deprived of so much. So, I guess I turn to you, Marjorie: How does one explain death to such a small child other than to do so in a matter-of-fact manner? My daughter needs to do this; it is not my place. Until then, I’ll continue to tell the stories so that he can know the Grandpop he never got to meet. Sometimes it’s all we can do. And yes, the pain never does go away. It becomes different but it is always there.
It’s so tough. I will say this – my dad talks about my mom a lot to my kids. They refer to her as “Grandma Susan” and not because I am telling them to do that. I talk about my mom, but my memories are limited, so my dad is the one who talks to them more about it. My younger kids (my boys) understand less, but now that my daughter is 9, she loves hearing stories about Grandma Susan from my dad. So keep telling them. It may take years, but your grandson will know his grandfather.
Melanie—Please don’t think that your daughter keeping busy to deal with her grief is harmful. One of the helpful things I learned from reading a booklet the Hospice folks gave me is that everyone has their own “style” of grief. Some people deal with it by crying a lot and expressing their emotions outwardly and talking about it. They call that “intuitive” grief. Others, rather than talk about their grief, intellectualize it and respond by throwing themselves into home improvement projects or charity work. This type is called “instrumental” grief. Of course, one can go back forth between both “styles” because everyone’s journey is different.
My husband had been with Hospice for less than a week when he died, but we had gone through three or four months that included radiation treatments and care by visiting home health nurses before his final decline. I was with him when he died at home at 1:30 am. The Hospice nurse came out right away and sprang into action, calling the funeral home, etc. I fell into bed, exhausted, around 3 in the morning. Later that same day the aide from the hospital came to retrieve the hospital bed and the medical supply company picked up the oxygen concentrator. My husband’s bedroom looked so empty and bereft, but I couldn’t bear to put his regular bed back in there. So, I went into a dusting and cleaning “frenzy” and dragged the club chair he would sit in, when he was able to, back in from the garage where I’d stored it. I transformed the room into an office/reading room in the matter of a few hours.
Later, my daughter told me that my teenage granddaughter had been a somewhat upset that I’d done that so quickly, but I said his room had been such a sad place for so many months when I was trying desperately to keep him alive. Putting his bed back would just perpetuate all those feelings. And I know he wouldn’t want me to focus on those but move on with my life because he’d told me just that in the days before his death.
Over the next few weeks I gathered up clothes and donated them to the Goodwill, brought boxes of Ensure and other medical supplies that were left over to a local nursing home that was struggling financially, and had a thrift store come out to pick up his exercise equipment so someone else could benefit from it. All of this was my way of dealing with my loss in a constructive way. To be sure, I did my share of crying, and still do.
There is no “one size fits all” way of experiencing grief. Your daughter may eventually come around to where she can talk about her father to your grandson. In the meantime, what you’re doing sounds perfect.
Oh, Marjorie! Sending love to you! I know this is a difficult time, I wish Shawn was here to celebrate Thanksgiving with you. What a year you’ve all had! I’m happy to hear you spent the holiday with a special family who understands grief and could share stories with you.
Thanks my friend. I am lucky to have such loving people around me.
First off, love your work and please keep it up. We live in an age of medical miracles that prolong life and appear to forestall death. So as a society we don’t seem to see much death and consequently rarely talk about it or the resulting grief. Your blog is a great way of starting and having that conversation.
But now a little of my story. My girls (11 and 13)and I are going through our year of firsts. My wife died in June this year (I don’t like to say lost, it makes me sound like I was careless and misplaced her somewhere). What I’ve found is that it’s the little things that can be hard. As a family we have always made our own Christmas pudding. I decided that we would make one this year at the traditional time in early November. Come the appointed day I found it difficult to get started with it, it was hard to get out of bed, hard to get the ingredients together, that kind of thing. But once I started to think that our lives go on regardless of what we have and are going through, the girls and I got into gear, put it together and steamed it. I’m not sure how Christmas will go this year, but it will be what it will be and I will feel what I feel.
The way I’m starting to think about “the firsts” (and life in general) is that we honour the dead, but we can’t stop living.
All the best to you and your family.
Thank you so much for sharing your story – and I”m so sorry to hear about the death of your wife. I was talking to another widower the other day about semantics, and he said he prefers the term “passed” and I told him I like “died.” I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I feel like I need the finality of “died.” But thank you for sharing about the holidays – I think it’s just so hard for all of us. Yes, we honor the dead, but we can’t stop living – I love that.
Yes, I’m with you on using “died” instead of “passed” or “passed away.” I had been saying the latter, but to me it’s beginning to sound like glossing over the reality of what happened. Maybe people like to use it to indicate passing on to “a better place.” I wish I knew that was a certainty.