By Kathy Schmugge
With a newborn in a new city, I was down in the dumps because bad weather prevented my planned trip to spend Thanksgiving day with my family.
This holiday was always a big celebration at home and my mom knew how to put together a magnificent spread for the holidays. I loved to assist and watch her bring everything perfectly together at her predicted time. When I called to cancel the trip, I spoke to several of my siblings who were already home. Their laughter was contagious, but it also intensified my longing to be them.
Suddenly reality hit. Neither my husband nor I had ever cooked a turkey and I didn’t even have the fancy serving dishes that would at least make the meal look appetizing even if it didn’t taste good. How was I going to make this day a celebration when I felt so disappointed?
Then I had the idea to see if my father-in-law and brother-in-law had made any plans. It would be a last minute invite but they were not too far away and having been raised in Chicago, they were probably not intimidated by the ice storm. Since my mother-in-law had passed away, I figured they would appreciate a home-cooked meal and my spirits were lifted when they said yes. Even though the pressure was on, something in my heart changed. Without knowing it, I was moving from self pity to the desire to make this day special for someone else. My father-in-law and his high school son would have their own memories and sadness of another Thanksgiving without my mother-in-law and I could make it better for them.
I had a short time to buy the turkey and get things going, but stress became excitement. I probably called my mom a hundred times, asking for recipes and going over cooking instructions. She was so patient with me, taking my every call.
Then God gave me another special gift. As I was trying to carry bags of groceries and an infant to my second floor apartment, one of my neighbors offered to help, which I gladly accepted. I had seen him around the complex and had several short, polite conversations with him. He seemed to be a very likeable man, constantly surrounded by friends. As I thanked him for his help, his face grew serious and sad, and he asked in a plaintive voice if he could have Thanksgiving dinner with us.
“I just can’t bear to spend another Thanksgiving alone,” he said, choking back emotion. “I want to be with a family.”
Without even thinking I immediately said yes. I couldn’t believe this outgoing man would know loneliness and I was overtaken with compassion for him. A little later, it dawned on me that I should have cleared this with my husband. I prayed that he would say yes because I didn’t know how I could uninvite this poor man. My husband did seem puzzled why a stranger would want to have Thanksgiving dinner with us, but he agreed that no one should be alone on a holiday.
The story ended well. It was the best Thanksgiving meal I have ever had (thanks to my mom’s constant coaching from afar). There was so much laughter and joy in our small apartment that day and I don’t think any of us thought it would have turned out that way.
Handling grief during the holidays
By Sister Sandra Makowski
Grieving is a part of the holiday stressors. You can’t help but think of your loved ones who have died. Not that you don’t think of them every day already, but holidays are different. Holidays are advertised on television, radio, store ads, churches and work places as a time when family is together. Expectations are so incredibly high that the let-down becomes that much more powerful.
What can we do to handle this kind of grief that comes intruding on our desire to enjoy the holiday?
One way we can handle it is to lower our expectations. No family is perfect and no household is without its own problems and stressors during the holidays. So – no holiday will be perfect – no holiday will be without its nostalgia, its sense of loss, and its imperfections. So lower the bar. You will feel lonesome, you will miss the loved one who has passed on, don’t deny your true feelings. Once you can expect to feel grief and know that it is normal, then it feels better already.
The second way to handle this kind of stress during the holidays is to acknowledge the empty chair. Sometimes families can do a little dance – like “do we want to talk about him or her” or “should we just ignore the fact and hope the feeling will go away?” It is suggested by some counselors that acknowledging the person with a physical space, like a photo or a candle is helpful. And then acknowledge the fact that life can go forward if we let it.
I remember my first Thanksgiving without my Mom. I decided to help serve Thanksgiving dinner at Neighborhood House, and felt drawn to Jacob (not his real name) who was a regular there. I pegged him as a poor, hopeless soul, and I was going to help make his holiday happier. I would plaster him with my pious platitudes and make him feel better.
Guess what? I soon discovered that he was a computer genius and reads about three books a day. He lost his wife and children in a car accident and never recovered from this tragedy. He began drinking; he lost his job, his house, and his life as he knew it. After meeting him, I discovered that other people grieve in a way that I never knew before. I then began to heal.
So – another way to handle the stress of grief is to allow others to change you – allow others to help you – allow yourself the opportunity to reach out to others, and then you will soon discover that we are all one in some form or the other. We are all connected. We will soon discover the art of compassion, and that can be the most honest and rewarding moment of the holiday.