On Grieving During the Holidays: The First Thanksgiving Without My Son
My 28-year-old son died in July.
Writing these words stops me. I sit in my seat, staring at them.
How can they be true?
It is hard to move past these words today, in particular. It is one day before Thanksgiving, and I am wondering how I will make it through tomorrow—the first big holiday without my son.
Jonny would have turned 29 in August. My wife, my daughter, and I survived his birthday with tears and memories and laughter, and then with more tears. Yet, there were fewer expectations on his birthday, fewer customs, and fewer traditions to uphold.
Whereas his birthdays have morphed throughout the years, and we have spent many without him, Thanksgiving is supposed to be a certain way. There is supposed to be turkey and wine and football. We are supposed to be loud and boisterous. We are supposed to be surrounded by family.
We are supposed to be thankful—thankful for the blessing of our children.
And Jonny is supposed to be there.
My wife, my daughter, and I will have Thanksgiving at my house, along with a handful of friends and family.
I wonder: Who will sit in Jonny’s chair? Will anyone sit in his chair, or will it sit empty—a loud vacancy reminding us that things are not as they are supposed to be?
We are certainly not the first family to face the fear of that first Thanksgiving. So many others have survived the holidays after a divorce, the first Thanksgiving after the collapse of a business, or the first Thanksgiving after the death of a spouse.
Today, it feels impossible to simultaneously grieve and celebrate—and yet, that is what so many of us are being called to do tomorrow.
A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend. We spoke of Jonny, and I told her that I was worried about the holidays.
Felice said something that has stayed with me.
“Remember that Jonny doesn’t die again on Thanksgiving,” she said.
Jonny died on July 27, 2015. On that day, we began to grieve. We began processing the fact that we would never again hug him or laugh with him or share a joke with him. He died on a hot day in July.
It happened once. It will never happen again.
It already happened, and it will not happen tomorrow.
I remind myself of this over and over because I want to give myself permission to move forward. And I want this for all of Jonny’s friends and family members: my wife, my daughter, Jonny’s girlfriend, and his many, many friends.
I do not want us to feel compelled to relive all of our grief, afraid to create new moments because we are so tragically lost in the past. I want us to make new memories, discarding this notion of what is supposed to be, and mindful that although we are grieving, we are also recovering.
Jonny does not die again tomorrow, and we are recovering.