My mother-in-law won’t be with us for the holidays. She died in July. It’s hard to imagine them without her smile and her pecan pies and her unceasing love. But here we are, hours away.
Just like every other day of our lives, on holidays we tell ourselves stories about what is to come, and then they come true. Thanksgiving will be so sad, we think, and Christmas will never be the same. They will be the hardest days, we think. All those statements are true, but a turn of the mind can insure that those days also include moments that are full of grace and remembrance, if we invite that to happen.
A lot of life takes place in the imagination. We imagine both sides of a conversation ahead of time, and then grade the other person on how closely he or she got their lines right. We daydream about the outcomes we want and feel we deserve, when we ask for a raise, or go to speed dating. We replay conversations, inserting the snappy comebacks we couldn’t produce at the time. We already have a lot of practice using our imaginations to soothe and care for ourselves.
At the same time, our imaginations can also work against us, when we generate worries and negative predictions. We dream up worst case scenarios to prepare ourselves for disaster. And once those stories come true, we think we were right.
It’s a choice, to harness our powerful imaginations for the good, like to transform the holiday from the disaster we imagine into a positive and comforting experience. It’s a choice to continue to carry your loved one’s life forward into your own.
The disaster-thinkers will be convinced that the best way to handle the day is with little to no mention of the loss, fearing that the emotions they hold at bay will overwhelm the occasion. To overcome their avoidance, someone (that’s you) needs to throw open the door, and invite your loved one into the day. This might sound like I really miss Mom today, or Mom would be so mad at us if we ignored her on Thanksgiving after all those turkeys she made, or Remember the time when Mom made that fancy-dancy stuffing with truffles and no one would eat it?
With any luck, a flood of stories will follow. There’s a tendency to idealize a person we have lost, but once the stories start, most of them are about the foibles that make her all the more lovable. It’s hard to grieve for someone standing on a pedestal, much easier when we can recall the intimate details of family or friendship that means we really knew the person we love. That is love in the present tense.
When it comes to grief, some say let go, don’t live in the past, get over it. They would say to suffer through the holiday and move on.
But there’s a new line of thinking that says, keep everything you can, transform the relationship to continue your loving connection, move on but bring your beloved with you.
This approach would suggest making a dish she loved for the holiday even though it won’t be as good as hers, setting a spot at the table to recognize her absence and placing notes at her plate of memories to read at the meal, writing a private letter to her with what you would say to her if she were here today and then realizing that you just did, figuring out what you could do out in the world that reflects what she most valued – as a donor or volunteer or supporter, or just being a person who smiles at the people she meets. Or determining that a holiday can be the best day, for remembering and honoring.
We get to hold on, fiercely. Not in denial or self-delusion that our loved one has died, but in transforming the relationship so it’s portable and can move through life informing and enlivening the rest of our time. For my part, by Christmas, I’m planning to become the best pecan pie baker I can be.