A Day To Remember
My friend and I were talking on the phone about life and self coaching and managing our minds when said, “I know this time of year is hard for you. Let me know if there is some way we can support the two of you.” I was taken aback. It’s not like I don’t know what time of year it is. I mean, I have a calendar. Actually, I have a few. But it occurred to me that as the days were piling up, and this time of year was already here, I was almost pretending like it wasn’t. Like if I just ignored it, it would go away. I was like a child, standing there with my eyes closed, thinking no one could see me. And for someone who is supposed to have become so self aware and so good at allowing feelings, I suddenly found myself in denial.
Three years ago, sixteen days after Thanksgiving and seventeen days before Christmas, my husband ended his life, making this time of year bittersweet for us. While everyone is busy celebrating joy and togetherness, we are remembering our loss. While I am trying to create a magical experience for my son, my husband's absence is glaringly obvious. His stocking is hung next to ours. His empty seat sits at the table. His loud, booming voice is missing from our home. I have no memories of that first Christmas, just days after he died. I’m sure there was a tree with presents from Santa and from me. There was probably a dinner of some kind. I have no idea. I was in shock and knowing me, trying to hide the fact that anything was wrong.
The following year, around October or November, I started having panic attacks more regularly than I was before. But I couldn’t figure out why. I kept thinking that I should have been moving farther away from grief but it felt like it was hurling towards it, fighting it with everything I had. I remember talking to a doctor about my anxiety and she said, “well, you are coming up on the one year mark." I said, “oh, is that a thing?” And she said, “that is absolutely a thing.” I quit my job and stopped drinking in order to start focusing on healing. My son and I snuck away to Maui, which is the place I feel closest to my husband. But I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t bring myself to get together with any of our friends. I thought I would sprinkle some of his ashes into the ocean, but I couldn’t manage to even take them out of the box. I couldn’t do much more than take my son to the pool and watch the sun set from the lanai. I remember feeling guilty that I wasn't doing something special to mark that day. But it just felt impossible to do anything more.
The year after that was during the pandemic so nothing in the world felt normal anyway. My son and I went trick or treating with masks on. We had a simple Thanksgiving dinner, just the two of us. We put up a fake tree and ordered some gifts on Amazon. And for the anniversary of my husband’s death, we just lit a candle, said a few words and blew the candle out. More denial. More guilt. It felt like I was just going through the motions because I felt like I should but my heart wasn't in it.
This year, year three, I finally have the courage and the excitement to celebrate the holidays without the dread. I’m actually looking forward to all the little things we used to do. It’s not that I don’t miss my husband. Of course I do. I miss laughing about gifts our relatives would send. I miss sitting on the couch at night, drinking wine and talking about our day. I miss holding his hand. And with that, I’m also ready to bring back some normalcy to our lives. To bring back traditions. To return to celebration and joy.
I’ve learned the hard way, fumbling my way through all of this, that it’s way more awkward and painful to act like he isn’t gone. If I just talk about him and acknowledge the fact that he isn’t here, it makes that feel a little more normal. And I realized that not only was ignoring this time of year an unhealthy approach for me, but it also wasn’t fair to my son. That it would serve us both to embrace it and face it head on. To welcome it in a way and create tradition around it. And I am so grateful for my sweet friend for reminding me that this time of year is hard. And that there could be a way to honor and celebrate him that could help us through it. I had to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn’t a day to remember the terrible thing that happened but instead a day to remember all the other days that we had him here with us.
So after comparing notes with my therapist, and my friend Google, I decided to start a new tradition. I gave my son an invitation that read, “you are invited to a Day of Remembrance in honor of Daddy. This will be a dress up event. We will make memory stones, tell stories, look at photographs and talk about how far we’ve come. There will be a special, family style dinner followed by a movie." I wasn’t sure how he would react but the invitation would give him time to process and prepare for the event. He read it and, after a minute, a huge smile spread over his face. He said “I’m so excited.”
I bought a tablecloth and candles. I had a photo book made with pictures of the two of them that says Daddy and Me on the cover. I’ll make a speech about how proud he would be of us and how much progress we've made since the time he left this Earth. I’ll serve something over the top and expensive because it’s my husband we’re talking about. And we’ll watch Lego Batman because it reminds us of him. I was feeling so anxious about having this event when I first started planning it. The anticipation is always way worse than anything to follow. But now I’m looking forward to it. And I'm proud of myself for having the courage to do it.
When I shared the idea with my Father-in-Law and his wife, they said they would celebrate him in the same way, in their time zone, and be with us in spirit. So I told my Mother-in-Law about it and she will also do the same. To say I wasn't nervous would be a lie. I still hesitate to allow the hard feelings to come. I still fear turning into a puddle on the ground or opening up the never ending floodgate of tears. But I know this will be a safe space to laugh and cry and remember him the way I want to. So I'm going to harness all the self-compassion I can manage and let whatever we feel be okay.