I’ll take a break from recounting my tales of the psychiatric hospital to talk about a time that has always been tricky for me and is now even more so: the holidays.
My parents divorced when I was very young, so feeling emotionally torn during the holiday season is an experience I’m pretty used to by now. During most of my childhood I lived with my father and stepmother. In the beginning, we lived a two-hour drive from my mother, then later we moved 2 hours, and a very treacherous drive, further away. If I was with one parent for a holiday I was missing the other, because there was no going back and forth between the two homes. So, unfortunately, no matter how much fun I was having during a holiday celebration, that joy was always tinged with a little bit of sadness and longing.
I ended up marrying a man whose parents were also divorced — though, for what it’s worth, he was an adult when they split. After we married, holiday planning was akin to a chess match when it came time to coordinate where we would spend the holidays. We had to decide between the homes of my mother (my farther had dropped out of my life by this time and that’s a story for another day), my mother-in-law and my father-in-law and his wife. Throw in my sister and my husband’s two sisters, and figuring out where to go was a herculean feat, to say the least. Once again, the fun of the holiday was tempered with that ever present sadness and longing for the family members not there with us.
I hoped my children would never have to feel this way when the holidays rolled around. But these days I live with constant guilt and shame that this is exactly what has become their reality.
This year was my first Thanksgiving without my children and the sadness was unimaginable. This was despite the fact that I was fortunate enough to have received numerous invitations and was able to be part of two wonderful celebrations — one with dear friends and one with my aunt, uncle and cousins. And although I had a fantastic time, I couldn’t shake the feeling of loss from not being able to share the holiday with my children as I had every year since my daughter was born 21 years ago.
But beyond missing them, picturing the entire day my kids would be experiencing was excruciating. I could imagine the day in vivid detail because it followed the same script as all the others before it. And for 25 years I had been an integral part of that day and very much part of the family and the traditions we created together.
I knew that up in Tahoe the night before Thanksgiving my husband would be making the same 3 delicious pies he makes every year – probably listening to The Big Night soundtrack. In the morning he would start preparing the turkey. My father-in-law would arrive in the afternoon to watch football — I can see him there on the couch with his glass of wine. Later on, my sisters-in-law would arrive with their in-laws and appetizers, side dishes and wine in hand. They would likely have a banner that my niece made and a table would be moved into the living room to accommodate the large group. With a fire in the large fireplace, there would be lots of lively conversation, lots of laughing and lots of drinking late into the night. All of it nearly identical to the years before it. The difference is this year I’ve been erased from the day, erased from the family and, if I’m honest, it feels like I’ve even been erased from the minds of everyone at the two tables.
It hurts like a sucker punch to the gut.
We hear from friends, co-workers and on social media how much there is to be grateful for at this time of year and how wonderful it is to be together with loved ones. This is true of course — maybe even more so this year with the terrible fires ravaging our state and the many who have lost their homes, their belongings and their lives. Which makes it that much harder to feel terrible. I DO have much to be grateful for, there is no doubt about that — it’s just so hard to muster up that gratitude on a day when all I can feel is loss. Loss of a family and all the traditions that go along with being part of that family. And knowing that it all continues on without me makes me feel like I never mattered to begin with.
I made it through round 1 of the holiday season. I’ve got a few more rounds to go. I know I’ll make it through — not unscathed, though, and not without experiencing a deep sense of grief and loss. For so many the holidays are truly the greatest time of the year and I’m happy for those who can experience the magic of the season. But it’s worth pointing out that there are so many of us who are doing our best to just survive these last two months on the calendar. If you are one of the lucky ones who enjoy this time of year — I don’t want to take away one bit of that joy. I just want to put out the idea that no matter what we do or how hard we try not to, some see this time though a different lens.
We are here. We long to be seen and heard and, most of all, understood.
If you know someone who is suffering right now, reach out. Say hello, let them know you’re shining of them. Offer up an invitation to coffee or lunch or dinner. Or just let them know they are seen and they are heard, and that you understand.