A mental health professional might describe the period immediately after the death of my husband as shock. Anyone else would have described it as The Holidays.
Three days after my husband, Aaron, took his last breath in 2014, it was Thanksgiving Day in America. The meaning of the holiday is right there in the name: You’re meant to gather and give thanks while gorging yourself on highly caloric, starch-based side dishes and dry pieces of a very large bird that nobody likes as much as they say they do.
I was not particularly thankful for Aaron’s stage IV glioblastoma and the way it had moved through his brain, clipping away at his motor function and his quick wit. I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful for the pile of medical bills that had been sitting unopened on our kitchen counter or for the struggle of explaining to Ralph, our 22-month-old son, where his Papa was (he was not, as Ralph insisted, under the couch).
I wasn’t actually feeling anything yet, which might explain why my siblings and my mother and I spent that Thursday evening in November gathered around a dining room table pretending that this was a holiday like any other. My family wanted that Thanksgiving to be a holiday miracle that transported us from our bruising reality back into the normal world we had taken for granted. We quickly realized that grief does not concern itself with your social calendar and that sometimes it’s better to observe your sorrow than a bank holiday.
This year, many may be in a similar position. Over 250,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. People have lost jobs and homes and marriages, have had their lives and livelihoods upended. But whether it’s pressure to celebrate or a natural desire to get back to normalcy, nobody is obligated to participate in holiday cheer. It’s always been 100 percent optional, and in 2020 you don’t even need to make up an excuse.
Looking back on the Thanksgiving after Aaron died, I don’t regret spending that time with my family, but I do regret how we spent it. There were several kinds of pie, baked by friends to reflect our family’s complicated dietary needs. There was a turkey. There were bowls of buttery mashed potatoes. Our bickering children kept us from experiencing any real silences and gave us a variety of topics to discuss: potty training, third grade, school-administered scoliosis exams. I looked up from my plate to see my brother put his arm around his wife and felt a tightening in my throat. He pressed his nose into her hair and I escaped to the bathroom to scroll Tumblr, leaning my face against the tile wall to cool my red cheeks.
Our performance hadn’t brought us closer together; it made us feel even lonelier than we already did. What we needed was not a passable performance of gratitude but the acknowledgment of the pain we were all silently holding inside of ourselves. And in our group chat in the days after, we confessed as much to each other. Our Thanksgiving dinner hadn’t eased our grief but amplified it. Going around the table to recite our “gratefuls,” we dutifully named each other, basic necessities and the food before us. We kept to the script, said a prayer, scooped up second helpings and pretended to be the family we had been before.
We all wish we’d spent that Thanksgiving creating a new version of the holidays that matched our emotional landscape. We could have watched the Marvel movies in chronological order or even just laid face down on the kitchen floor for a few hours.
I wish we’d had the guts to say out loud how bad we all felt, how terrible it all was. I wish we had simply opted out of that year’s holiday season, had pretended it just wasn’t happening instead of pretending it was all OK.
It is hard to accept a reality that you did not choose, but fake it ’til you make it is not a healthy emotional coping strategy. The holiday industrial marketing machine has already roared to life; a new slew of holiday movies featuring a city girl trying to save a small town business are up on every streaming channel.
But our need for joy and celebration cannot erase or replace our sorrow, and our expression of gratitude or happiness doesn’t need to be confined to specific dates. You can eat a meal of thanksgiving in July or exchange gifts with your family in April. In the years since my husband’s death, we’ve turned his birthday into a holiday called Aaronfest, which we honor by eating his favorite items from Taco Bell and with unnecessary and outlandish gifts for the children.
Six years after that horrible Thanksgiving, my holiday spirit has begun to realign with the traditional calendar, even though this time of year is inextricably laced with grief and loss for me, like it is for so many people.
I know from personal experience that nobody wants to put down roots in Sadville, but you do need to pass through it. Our grief and our gratitude are not in competition with one another. They do not cancel each other out.
We need space for each of them — always — but especially now.
Nora McInerny is the creator of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and the founder of the Hot Young Widows Club, an online support group.