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Making A Place At The Table For Grief On Thanksgiving

The holidays aren't easy for everyone.

I asked some friends to share how they deal with loss in the midst of the day we set aside for gratitude.

We didn't want a Thanksgiving the first year my twin sister Cara was missing from the table. We weren't at all hungry. Grief had filled us. There wasn't much to be thankful for, either: not the food. Not the lousy Lord. Not the mornings that had arrived each day like a freight train since June, when Cara had died. Mom and I were thankful to have one another, we just couldn't say it then; we were still too tender. And above all else we are Italian: superstitious, to the point where uttering "I love you" after a death in the family seems a sure way to bring the hearse right back. But there was the company to consider, and the fact that my sister had loved to eat. Thanksgiving for two? Unspeakably depressing. It took years to find our way. This is what I know: The key to surviving the holiday without Cara was not forgetting her. Our table for two has grown to four; I am blessed with a husband and a daughter who join us now. We roast a turkey. We make candied yams topped with a soft marshmallow pillow. We mix breadcrumb stuffing. We bake fruit pies for Cara, and stir her strong cocktails. We keep our ritual. Thanksgiving is our Day of the Dead. We give Cara what she most cherished: food love. One day a year we have her back for dinner, and are fed again. More than that, we are nourished. We are thankful for who we have. Family lives, and dies, and is born. And no matter what, we try to keep our appetites, together. Hunger keeps the heart alive.

—Christa Parravani

My father died at 10:33 a.m. on April 17, 2005. It was not unexpected or sudden. At the age of 87, he'd lived a full life — one that had been significantly less than pleasant since a series of strokes stole first his body, and then parts of his memory. So by the time Thanksgiving rolled around seven months later, the grief we'd been nursing long before he drew his final breath had settled in. Not that we — my mother, my brothers, my children — didn't miss him, but it came in bursts of memory, not continuous raw emotion. But Thanksgiving — for me — was one of those moments. For the last few years of his life, my father lived in a nursing home but hated the food and the "old people" in the cafeteria. So every year my brother would bring him waffles from Waffle House and sit in his room and watch movie marathons. Living hours away, I usually missed this tradition. But not this year. After the turkey and the trimmings, after everyone had gone home, I pulled out the instant Bisquick mix and sat alone, eating waffles with the memory of my dad.

—Donna Dickens

The first Thanksgiving after my wife and I lost our 17-month-old daughter, Madeline, was incredibly difficult. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when you stop and give thanks for all the good in your life, but when something so unspeakably horrible happens to you, how are you supposed to be thankful? I was angry at the world, furious that other parents got to give thanks for their children at their side while my wife and I no longer could. My father likely picked up on my feelings because he skipped over a family tradition of ours, which is to go around the table and have everyone say what they're thankful for. I greatly appreciated his having the foresight to do that, because it would have been too much for me, but the next year I did give thanks, and one of the things I was thankful for was having been lucky enough to have Madeline in my life for the time that I did. I've done a lot of reflecting on grief in the four and half years since she passed, and I've found that the bereaved must eventually let go of their anger or it will swallow them whole. To keep on living a healthy and productive life, it's important to give thanks for what you had and not linger on what you don't. It's not easy to do by any stretch of the imagination, but it's how I've learned to live my life, and it's how I will celebrate Thanksgiving again this year.

—Mike Spohr

A few months after I left for college, my grandmother Alzada had to move in with my family. When my grandmother developed problems with her balance and could no longer stand unassisted, my parents reconfigured their bedroom to accommodate Grannie's hospital bed. Since my mother often had to get up and down many times per night and my father hadn't retired yet, he moved into my old room. When my grandmother passed, my mother had been on 24-hour call for eight years with her. Daddy and I were sad, but Mommy was exhausted. When the medical supply company came to pick up the hospital bed and potty chair, the empty space seemed larger than should be possible. The walls in the corner seemed even whiter, the carpet underneath the bed was pristine. With a gleam in her eye, Grannie would often threaten to come back from the dead and "haint" me. The empty corner certainly felt like a "hainting." One day I found my father staring at Grannie's corner. He shook his head. "We need to do something about this," he said. "It's awful," I said. "We need that armoire," my daddy said. The bedroom set was only a few months old, bought to replace the one that had been destroyed by a house fire (it had been a bad few years). There was no room for it before. This was likely my father's first and last decision about home décor; he knew if the empty space was bothering us, it was a torment to my mother. A late birthday present, I offered. Grannie was buried the day before my mother's birthday; it was a very quiet, very sad birthday that year. The new armoire arrived in time for Thanksgiving. After all the company was gone, the three of us climbed onto the bed together to admire the armoire and to miss Grannie too. The room we were in had been a master bedroom, a guesthouse for countless friends and family, an extravagant toy room for me, a rest home for my Grannie and back. I started to understand that over a lifetime, a family (however you choose to make it) can be reconfigured by many things: by joy, by grief, disaster, or providence. The best of families remake themselves again and again so that you are always home.

—Jamey Hatley

In 1992, I began living in the U.S. without my immediate family — the entire González clan returned to Mexico that year, never to set foot on American soil again. Decades later, most of them have passed away. If once I felt alone in the country, now I felt alone in the world. Holidays became painful, particularly because that question of "Are you going home for Thanksgiving?" was obligatory during the season. How to explain to my colleagues and my students that I had no home and no family within reach, that on occasion I was that solo guest at other people's Thanksgiving feasts, where, despite efforts to make me feel welcomed, I always breathed a sigh of relief when I exited, me the stowaway on a different family's table of memories. I tried other alternatives: celebrating Thanksgiving with my fellow orphans, commemorating the genocide of the Native American people by refusing to participate in the conventional traditions, and even volunteering at a soup kitchen, where I didn't serve a single person because my task was to open up the cans of food in the back. Every attempt rang slightly false until I faced what I had been running away from: my beloved dead. So one Thanksgiving, and many thereafter, I gathered my departed family members around me — they had always been there, waiting to fill the void I had been stuffing with turkey and activist gestures and charity. There was Abuela tending her garden, there was Abuelo baking his bread. There was my father and Tío Rafael telling stories. There were my cousins, Vero and Danny, children again, horsing around on the lawn. And there I sat at the small dining table, where we took turns because it feed only four at a time. I was doing exactly what I'm doing now: cherishing the days my loved ones were with me so that they will always outnumber the days I feel their loss.

—Rigoberto Gonzalez

I pull at my beard and look at Mama. Her Walmart list is heavy with all of the things to create the Thanksgiving her parents, my Nanny & Papa, always made. On Mama's counter, there's the washtub Nanny always used to mix the dressing. In Mama's head, the recipe handed down from Margaret. I say, "I'd rather just load up — me and you and Daddy — and go to Dollywood for Thanksgiving." I don't say, "This is a whole altar we're setting up for saints that ain't even here — saints that now live everywhere." I don't say, "These are gravel roads we drag out every year to run ourselves ragged on all the way from New York City to Alabama and back." Mama responds with the agony of the oldest, "We can't do that. What would my brothers and sisters do?" The agony of the only — I'm the only one who can make the biscuits that get crumbled into something close to nothing in order to make the thickness of the dressing. Nanny always said Mama played with her dough too much. When Nanny died, I was determined to learn biscuits without anyone to teach me. And I did. It was magic. It still is. I fold the dough. I break the bread. I cry the whole damn time.

—Bo McGuire

My grandmother, or Nana as we called her, passed away from Alzheimer's three years ago. In our family, Thanksgiving was her holiday. She'd stand in the kitchen of her Long Island home with silver dishes covering every surface, all of them waiting to be filled to the brim with food. She'd yell at anyone who tried to steal crackers and cheese before the plate was put in the living room. The house smelled like turkey and sweet potatoes topped with browning marshmallows. Smells turn into memories and, especially during the holidays, memories turn into grief. It's November again and my mom has started to pull out her mother's recipes. My mother, with her vague New York accent and big smile, will stand at the oven, Nana's memory standing right beside her. We'll cook sweet potatoes and melt marshmallows until they'll golden brown. We'll cook the turkey, just as Nana taught us, until the smell drifts from the kitchen into the living room and on into the dining room where a table is set with those same silver dishes.

—Mackenzie Kruvant

Something in the throat, the weight of a dinner napkin on the chest that grows to a cast-iron pan — it's not just grief for my half brother who died at 10 in April 2012 from complications from the rare genetic disorder propionic acidemia, but grief also for those grieving. My stepmother. My father, grandparents, all. It's hard for me to remember my brother, only him, as he was always surrounded by family, nurses, and therapists. Did we ever have a moment alone? Since hearing Alan Shapiro this summer read his poem "Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them," where the deceased wait in a station for the train of remembering to carry them back to the living, I can't help but think that my brother, wheelchair bound, would never be able to board without the help of others. In this way, I've allowed my family to travel between the living and the dead, to go there and get him and bring him back in memory. In this way, I feel sometimes I've lost part of them, too, and can't separate my griefs. I can't have one without the other. Again, my husband and I won't travel home for Thanksgiving. But even in phone calls, I hear it — a hollowness to the room, the way their voices don't break on him, but keep going, like light, into the vague and open distance.

—Emilia Phillips

My mother died when I was 14. For Thanksgiving my family would usually travel to Texas to my aunt and uncle's house, my mom's sister and brother-in-law, and their two children, one of whom is now married and hosts Thanksgiving in Texas herself. Now I have two small kids, and traveling isn't easy, so we've started to stay home for Thanksgiving and invite friends instead of family to our table. For my mom, Thanksgiving was a chance to see her faraway sister, to whom she felt constantly close, whom she was constantly calling. For me, her death, though it was more than half my life ago, always has a way of feeling new, unaccepted. That strikes me as a fair response to incommensurable loss. My young family is still figuring out what our Thanksgiving means; we know it's a chance for us to enjoy each other's company, to bring friends and to make a larger family of our own. All those new people aren't taking my mother's place, but I don't leave a seat for her. She's there because she's not, and I'm grateful for this strange kind of presence, which prods me to make Thanksgiving my own.

—Craig Morgan Teicher

When I think about the holidays, I think about love in all of its forms. Of course the love of family and friends, but also romantic love: an essential component of every movie about this time of year. For me, late November doesn't only mean Thanksgiving; it also marks the anniversary of my relationship with boyfriend Blake. This will be the first Thanksgiving since he died from a heroin overdose. And I'm left wondering how I can be grateful for everything I have on a day that now highlights what I've lost. I'm planning to shift the focus from the absence of my romantic love and center it on the overwhelming presence of the other two types. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for not only my friends and family, but also the love of new friends and family that Blake brought into my life. Because of him, I have another sister, two more parents, a third grandmother, and countless additional friends. Although their love won't replace Blake's, it doesn't need to. I will feel it all around me and especially through them.

—Briana Wagner

My grandfather's bourbon will sit at our Thanksgiving table without him this year — his actual, half-filled bottle. This summer, my cousin found the plastic handle of Bourbon Supreme, Papa's whiskey of choice, in his country club locker that hadn't been opened in over a decade. The bottle still has a yellow sticky note on it with my grandfather's handwritten name. The graceful script shows he owned the sweet drink that took something it didn't own — his life. We've toasted him at each Thanksgiving he's missed for the past 12 years with red Solo Cups of Bourbon Supreme and Canada Dry ginger ale. I don't recall a holiday when he didn't have a bourbon and ginger in his hand. He named his old yellow lab Bourbon, and my family had his sister, Ginger. His house had a perfume of honeyed ginger and sun-faded Oriental rugs. I can't drink a bourbon and ginger today without thinking of Papa, which means the toast each Thanksgiving always works. But we've always searched the bottom shelves at the liquor store ourselves to buy the plastic handle of Bourbon Supreme. By providing a bottle from the outside with nebulous ownership, we've arranged for a distance between the whiskey and my grandfather's remembrance to protect ourselves from the reality that the drink (but not that drink) has caused his memorial. Pouring from my grandfather's own bottle this year will shorten the distance and strip away some of the protection. Perhaps sitting closer to the pain will reveal more truthfully who we miss. Perhaps living closer to the truth will reveal for whom we're honestly thankful.

—Win Bassett

I have never had a better teacher about American history than my father, who died ten years ago while teaching the subject. Literally. He was in front of his community college class on post-Civil War American History when he tried to sit down but hit the floor instead. A blood clot had made its way to his heart, and he never regained consciousness. I think of him all the time, but especially on American holidays like Thanksgiving, which he was making our family rethink long before that was popular. I remember when my dad came home from his first parent-teacher conference with my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Steele, shortly before Thanksgiving in 1986. She had told him, "We had an assignment where the students had to alphabetize a list of Thanksgiving terms, and your son crossed out the term 'Indian,' moved it to 'N' section on the paper, and renamed it 'Native American.'" My dad had to laugh, because that was pure Bill Thrasher at work being channeled through my fourth grade pencil. He loved, but always made me question, American days like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, and it's never felt quite right celebrating them without him.

—Steven Thrasher

It's easy, living in New York City, to not feel grateful. We are surrounded by wealth and excess. And as an adjunct professor, I don't make much money. When I tell friends what I earn, they tell me they could never live off what I make. But the fact is, I am fortunate. I am able to make a living teaching writing. I live in Brooklyn, in an apartment with heat. I have warm water. But feeling grateful about my life implies that my life is better than the lives of others. And this is the glitch. Though I have worked extremely hard to transcend my circumstances, the fact is, I'm in the fortunate position that I am as the result of what some people might call luck, but what I would call grace. And so though I know it's important to be grateful for what I have, it's difficult, at the same time, not to feel grief, to feel immense sorrow, for the many, the majority, who have nothing or close to nothing. In my city, outside my city. This is reality. And it's with reality that I enter the week of Thanksgiving. Aware of the disparities and the injustices of the world we live in. And, simultaneously, with deep gratitude for what I have been given.

—Cynthia Cruz