Navigating grief during another pandemic holiday season

Thanksgiving Day 2016 came two months after my mom died following a hard-fought battle with cancer. I don’t remember much about what happened that holiday. If I had to guess, I drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep on the couch watching the Dallas Cowboys game.

My memory is hazy about the events of Christmas Day that year, too. All I can really remember is how I felt going through the motions of the holidays, supposedly one of the “most wonderful” times of the year. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t cheerful.

Every time I looked at social media, I saw happy families beaming as they fed off the energy of being together. But every time I looked around in my own life, all I could see was the gaping hole left by my mother when she passed on from this Earth.

The holidays are, rightfully, a time to practice gratitude and spread positivity, but when I was deep in the throes of grief over my mom’s death, I couldn’t feel grateful or upbeat. I was strangely numb, simultaneously empty on the inside and overwhelmed by the effort it took to simply exist day to day. I was a certified Grinch, envious of anyone with the emotional means to celebrate the season.

Grief can be a lonely experience. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the feelings of isolation that come with grief when it forced Americans to say goodbye to their loved ones through plastic curtains and to attend memorial services virtually. In hindsight, I feel thankful I got to do both of those things in person, though it didn’t make the grieving process any easier.

“There are no rules to grief, and it will hit you when it wants to hit you. Not on your time or anyone else’s time,” said Morgan Dingle, a Wheat Ridge-based counselor and also the person I pay to help me dissect my issues.

She’s right — at least according to my experience, both in the past and as I sit here teary-eyed revisiting my trauma. This part of the process is cathartic and, yes, a little self-indulgent, but I’m hoping this retelling helps anyone else suffering through the holidays this year. So here we go.

Joanne Ricciardi’s life ended similarly to others who fall gravely ill. In September 2016, she went in for chemotherapy treatment and didn’t feel well, then ended up in the hospital near my apartment in downtown Dallas, where the doctor informed me the next step was to set up hospice care. I think she only opened her eyes once after that, when a nurse came in to change her bedsheets. I tried to reassure her — and myself — that everything would be OK.

These days, thanks to years of therapy, I don’t often picture my mom in those last moments. But in the immediate aftermath, the fact that she wasn’t cooking sides for Thanksgiving dinner or forcing us to decorate the Christmas tree “too early” were excruciating reminders of the shattered place in my heart where my mom’s love once resided.

JoJo, as we called her, was the nucleus of our family unit and, frankly, the holidays after her death were somewhat awkward as my father, brother, sister and I reconfigured our roles. Who decided what to eat besides prime rib on Thanksgiving Day? Who was going to play Santa at Christmas? When or why would we call each other or get together? That kind of stuff always revolved around mom.

Experts hope that the collective grief we as humans have experienced from the pandemic —  whether from losing someone close, losing a job or losing a sense of normalcy — will change the way our society talks about it. And I hope so, too.

Grieving sucks, plain and simple. But in the spirit of open dialogue, I can attest that it won’t suck as badly forever.

Over the last five years, I have discovered meaningful new ways to connect with my family members. That includes (lovingly) forcing my brother and sister to help me cook the sides for Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve also been able to relate deeply with friends who have lost a parent. We were initiated into the worst club ever, but at least it brought us together to talk about the lingering suckiness.

It’s tough, but you shouldn’t feel ashamed if the usual traditions don’t inspire you this holiday season. And I’d encourage you not to hide your grief just because that kind of attitude doesn’t fit the archetype. I had an incredible support system and somehow my grief still always felt like a burden. At times I would go out with friends to escape my mental anguish, only to feel like all I really wanted was to be left alone. What I needed was someone to willingly “sit in the suck” with me, as Dingle put it, and not judge me for being such a damn bummer.

On-demand hugs and a lifetime supply of beer would have also helped. But time to process those emotions is really the only consolation prize.

“Just go with it when it hits you, however it hits you,” Dingle advised. “Let yourself feel it because it doesn’t have any rules or structure or why or reason.”

The good news: I don’t greet my grief over morning coffee anymore or spend nights scream-crying to the point of exhaustion. The bad news: That the daily struggle is in the rearview mirror doesn’t change the fact my mom didn’t see me get married or that she won’t be there to celebrate when my husband and I buy our first house. Those missed moments together really still get to me.

I’ll be traveling back to Texas soon to spend Thanksgiving with my family in my childhood home, gathered around the same table in the formal dining room where she used to sit at the head opposite my dad. It’s a familiar setting, but every year the tradition evolves. This year, for example, our celebration is expanding to include my in-laws, and that undoubtedly means new dishes and desserts to stuff our faces with.

JoJo will be there in spirit. And now when I try to time the rolls perfectly with the prime rib to avoid derailing dinner and watch my mom’s favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, play on the holiday, I welcome the memories of her fondly.

And little by little, it’s helping to mend that once broken spot in my heart.

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