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Grief caught me by surprise this Thanksgiving.
Like holidays sometimes do, the day of gratitude fell short of my expectations. Our house was messy, the kids were restless and spending too much time in front of screens, and my husband and I kept snapping at each other.
I had the unsettling thought that my lovely little family somehow wasn’t enough. That we should be tidier, more connected, less moody versions of ourselves.
Preoccupied with these feelings of discontent, of wishing for something picture-perfect yet amorphous, I forgot all about the feelings lurking just below the surface.
I always say Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal to me—I’ve been a vegetarian for decades, and I avoid foods like dairy, sugar, and wheat flour due to food sensitivities. Traditional staples like turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy are off-limits for me.
But on the way to a relative’s house for a family gathering, the feelings caught up with me. Grief always seems to find us. We can slow down, allow grief to surface, and let the feelings of achy longing rise in us. Or we can try to outrun it, and it will find us anyway, but it will likely be sharper and sideways, gnashing its teeth.
Our kids had noticed my husband and I bickering, so on the ride to the gathering, we talked to them about it.
“Holidays are fun, but sometimes they’re hard, too,” I said to my kids as I drove.
“And we can have all different types of feelings on the holidays—we can feel grumpy or excited or sad,” my husband added.
As he spoke, a wave of nostalgia rose and crested in the center of my chest. Tears filled my eyes and slid down my cheeks.
As it turns out, Thanksgiving is a big deal to me. Because while it’s about food and gratitude and reaching for peace across traditions, it’s also about family and memories. And as much as I adore my kids and husband, I often forget that they are not my first family.
So many of my first family is gone. My beautiful little brother, gone nearly 20 years now. My grandparents and godparents. They are the bones of my memories, the molecules of home that echo through me.
I forgot, this Thanksgiving, caught up in this brisk season of my life, that I need to make space for these memories, for the bite and glitter of them. Memories of making yam jokes with my brother at my grandparents’ table, and dancing on their berry-hued carpet afterward. Of fielding my grandfather’s annoying comments about my vegetarianism and my choice of clothing. Of the sound of my family’s voices, the familiar chatter of them, an ancient song.
Of the ghost of my first family, us four who became three.
I want to enjoy my beautiful children and this tender, sweet spot of parenting. And my husband, who shows up day after day, so steady and openhearted. But to do so, I sometimes have to allow my grief rise up like an old friend. I have to paw through my memories, hold them up to the light, and say, I remember. And, I miss you.
Every year during the holidays, I wish that grief wasn’t so stubborn, so durable. I wish it took up less space, and that it didn’t sometimes swipe me out of the present moment. I wish I could just smile my way through the season, basking in the glow of strands of white lights and crisp air.
But grief is love: messy and wide, stronger than anything else I know. It’s part of the package of being human. It lives in our cells, rising up during the holidays, sometimes soft and almost sweet, sometimes fierce and twisting. So I’ll remind myself to sit and wait for it to come. I’ll invite it to sidle up to me. I’ll make space in my heart for the complicated textures of love and longing, the worn velvet and jagged metal edges and liquid loss.
And then, then I’ll turn my attention back to this fleeting, glimmering now. To my blue-eyed babies. To this long love. I’ll make space for all of it, light and dark braided together, flickering and full.