THE CRISPNESS in the air, the crunching of leaves underfoot, the early darkening of the sky -- these signs would be enough, even without the store decorations and unsubtle advertisements, to let us know that "the holidays" are approaching. For people who are grieving, especially if this is the first holiday time to be confronted without the presence of a loved one who has died, this is a difficult time of year.
Bereavement support groups usually devote at least one session to hints on how to handle holiday depression. Suggestions range from leaving town to spending the day helping out in a soup kitchen. Perhaps the simplest advice is to make sure things are done in a way different from the way you used to do them.
For the first Thanksgiving after my husband Ray's death, I decided it would be a good idea not to eat at home. It's true that it can be expensive for a family to dine out, but if one shops around early enough, one can find that some restaurants have specials. I decided it was worth the expense, and each year I've continued to make that day a special treat.
On the first Christmas, my older daughter had just moved into a new apartment, and she had the rest of us over for Christmas dinner. This was a big help. We still missed Ray, but he had never been to that apartment, which made things easier -- no memories to deal with there.
The next year that daughter was in England, so the three of us who were left went to my sister's. But by the third holiday season, my younger daughter, Amy, said, "Mom, please let's stay home for Christmas this year."
After all this time, I certainly should be able to handle it, I told myself. It was only fair to the children. But as Christmas came closer, and I began thinking of shopping for the food and planning the menu, I became more and more depressed. Finally, I told Amy, "I don't know what we're going to do, but I really cannot deal with trying to do things the same as we used to, only without Daddy."
"I'll cook the turkey," she offered.
"Who puts the meal in the oven isn't the point," I said. "I'd still be expecting to see Daddy at the kitchen door saying, 'That really smells good.' I'm sorry, I just can't do it."
I felt bad. I didn't want to let her down but I didn't want to regress. I had been doing well emotionally and I didn't want to open old wounds.
Suddenly, Amy brightened. "How about shrimp creole?" she said.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"We'll have shrimp creole. Everybody likes it; it's a cheery red color, and we'll have a green salad."
So that year we began our new Christmas tradition. We moved the tree to another spot in the living room, and with our innovative menu, we started another kind of celebration. Of course, we still miss Ray -- there will always be an emptiness without him -- but Christmas has become a different holiday. I learned from that experience that it is best, in order to avoid unnecessary pain, not to try to relive the past but to find new ways to live the future.
Janet P. Zinzeleta writes from Ellicott City.