“I don’t think I can do Christmas like we normally do,” I wrote in an email to my brother, the summer after our mom died. “Yeah,” he replied, which was his answer to most things I said because he: is a man, is an introvert, and has been dealing with me, a person often described as “a lot,” since his very first second on earth.
I was 27 and he was 24 when our mom died of pancreatic cancer, leaving a huge, impossible, tear-filled hole in our lives, as well as this question: How the hell were we supposed to celebrate the holidays now?
Despite our bickering and communication struggles, there were no other people I’d rather swap coffee breath with on Christmas morning than my family. There was never any doubt in my mind that we’d soldier through the holidays together, fighting the onslaught of Dead Mom Feelings that pop up the second the oldies station switches over to Christmas music. But I also knew that things had to be different because, well, they were different now.
There was no way that we would be able to make it through Christmas sitting in our old spots in our living room, waiting for my mom to bring out the apple cake she made for breakfast each year. And so it was settled, then. We had to get the hell out of town.
The destination was a Marriott Resort in St. Kitts, the only resort with a room left. Here’s how that went: It was sometimes easy to escape missing my mom on a Caribbean island, and at others it felt as if she were baked into every moment. Even the most innocuous things seemed to scream, “MOM!”: the sand crushing beneath my feet, the endlessly warm sun, the wind slicing and dicing my face. My brain found ways to work her absence into every moment. What would it be like if she were here? it asked, as I peeled my thighs off the hot plastic beach chairs or shoveled yogurt into my mouth at the breakfast buffet. The entire week teetered on the edge of darkness and light, with one foot stuck in I Want Her Back, and the other tentatively sticking a toe in How to Go On Without Her.
What is it about the Goddamn holidays that make the grief so much worse, anyway? Every single day without your mom is a void, and there are constant, year-round reminders that she is now gone. (One whiff of someone on the subway wearing her perfume, Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, and I’m a mess.) But the holidays hold so many memories — good and bad — that even the smallest, strangest thing can send you spiraling.
Just one stanza of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and I’m suddenly jetting back through time, reliving my entire childhood with her: seeing The Nutcracker while wearing scratchy tights and a fur muff, the gatherings every December at the weird buffet restaurant in Copley Place, the Christmas carols playing endlessly. I can feel everything: the warmth of the station wagon, the sound of my parents talking up in the front, the eerie darkness of Boston rushing by along the Mass Pike. It's comforting, throwaway moments like these that, when repeated every winter, become permanent creases in our memory.
One of the most common conversations I have with other Dead Mom people is “How the hell do you get through the holidays?” And while “escape to the Caribbean!” is a fun answer to give, it’s not reasonable to assume most people can combat grief with vacation. I definitely would not have been able to, had my father not picked up that hotel bill. (Thank you, Dad.) And the truth of it all is that no matter where you run off to, no matter how you change your traditions, or mix things up, or cook something different, she’s still gone. My mom was just as dead when I was on an island in the middle of the ocean as she was when I sat on the toilet in my apartment. So yes, give yourself a holiday escape plan, be it a trip, a new recipe to try, or an HBO binge-watch. And know that your grief will be right there waiting for you when you get back, like that one present left unopened under the tree.
And once you’ve done that, or maybe in between and throughout, allow me to present my questionably but possibly handy guide for getting through the holidays without your mom: a plan that may or may not work, but fuck it, it’s worth a try.
Cook something new. Play board games. Donate all the money you would spend on presents to different charities. Attend a religious service. Take a road trip. Volunteer! Go out to dinner. Go to the movies. Binge watch a TV show as a family. (The Walking Dead might be too on the nose, but maybe The Sopranos could work?) Invite over as many random people as possible and host a potluck. Open presents on Christmas Eve, and spend Christmas cleaning the house. Dog-sit for a friend. Take a yoga class. Go for a hike. Start a new tradition. Run or walk a 5K. Plant a tree. Go to a sporting event. Attempt a vegan Thanksgiving. Cry. (What? Crying can be new!)
In the end, yes, of course your mom will still be gone. But the memories you have of her won’t be, and you’ll have all these new ones, too. (How could you forget that time you tried to make Thanksgiving vegan, and were forever fired from hosting holidays?)
Kate Spencer is the author of The Dead Moms Club: A Memoir about Death, Grief, and Surviving the Mother of All Losses, available November 21st from Seal Press. This has been excerpted and adapted with her permission.