Almost immediately after Lev’s death, I began to worry about the Holidays, more than seven months away. Having always loved everything about Christmas—the tree, carols, presents, cards, cookies, candies and lavish meals—I did not want to lose that too. How could I move from loss and grief to the joy of Christmas?
In early fall, I set goals for myself, borrowing literally from the word thanksgiving. I resolved to focus on gratitude, on giving thanks.
The words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:8 became my words about Lev: I thank God every time I think of you. I recall our time together with joy. I remember that everything I have is the result of your hard work. One thing I’m certain of: That you are well and whole again in the presence of the Lord who saved you. Though I miss you now, I know that I shall see you again. That expectation with thanksgiving brought me comfort and peace.
I planned my first party as a widow—a large open house in early November to thank all those who had been kind to me after Lev died. At the same time, I designed my holiday card. Since 1967, the year our son was born, we had sent Christmas photo cards. Every major life event was marked in that year’s card. I was not ready to say, “Merry Christmas!” and I did not want to receive cards addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.” Not everyone knew that Lev had died. What to do?
In my church, we sang a little praise song, Give thanks with a grateful heart. I often hummed the melody as I worked around the house. I selected that as my theme for a Thanksgiving card—a montage of photos that told the story of Lev’s life from the time he was a baby through our marriage and children to the grandchildren and the family trips, all the happy memories for which I continue to give thanks. The only clues of his death on the card were the dates, March 4, 1937–April 7, 2009, under his name and the closing, “Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving, Ella.”
While I still struggle to be thankful for what I have, instead of wishing for a past that cannot be, I am more proactive, less dependent on my family to plan my holidays. Each year is better. In 2014, for the first time in years, the entire family gathered around my table on Thanksgiving Day. Planning and preparation brought me the joy of anticipation, and the time we celebrated together left me with happy memories. It was a blessed time, a turning point.
Lesson learned: In our despair, we cannot imagine that life will ever be good again. By living in gratitude mode—counting our blessings, continually saying thanks—we can move from despair to confidence. We can find joy in our memories of the past and our anticipation of the future.
Excerpt from my book-in-progress, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS.