Grieving parents like me are told to gird themselves for anniversaries and holidays, for birthdays and religious events. We’re advised to plan for days associated with joy. We consider exit strategies. We talk about how the markers of civil religion and religious observance are harder for us, now that we no longer exist exactly inside society, but run alongside it, observing. Each holiday centered on family is now barbed.
So, all that’s to say, I have been approaching Thanksgiving this year with trepidation.
I love a holiday focused on gratitude and gathering, of food and camaraderie. I tend to cook when I’m sad or worried, and I’ve been both, a lot, of late. I bake challah and cakes and cookies. I prepare salads and mains and sides. I sauté and stir and sweat and focus. On any given Friday afternoon, my kitchen looks as though I’m expecting a crowd. But no matter how many I’ve invited, it is never the fullness of our table I see, but the absence of a place setting.
And yet, as much as holidays and calendar markers are as hard as promised, in this first half year of bereavement since our daughter Orli, 14, died from the complications of metastasized liver cancer, it is her daily absence that is the cruelest blow. It is making a pot of Orli’s favorite black beans knowing she will never sit down to eat them; it is adding back chocolate into the recipes I had removed it from, for she, unfathomably, loathed it; it is setting the table again and again for three instead of four; it is the expansiveness of the back seat of the car. It is in this quotidian drama that our family has to work to find levity as well as management, joy and, yes, exit strategies — especially as, in so many of these moments, we find ourselves alone in the noticing.
The notes and text messages slow and stop, the absence drones on. Living in loss is heavy; it is made all the more so by a world overflowing with grief, and parental pain. I see myself in all these newly minted members of my terrible club.
It’s also a remarkable amount of work, a second (or third) job. My partner, Ian, and I have sat down with groups and met with counselors. We have joined Zoom sessions, read the words of those who have come before us. Together with our surviving daughter, Hana, 10, we recently traveled to a conference at Boston Children’s Hospital to process our grief and try to face the absence at our table with other similarly reeling families.
Such experiences aren’t in search of solace or solution, but of place. It is powerful to be around people who recognize the insistency of loss, its daily presence, the continued impact of which so easily slips past others, unseen, as everyone else returns to the business of living. It has made me recognize how many people walk around concealing pain.
As a family, we have weathered a batch of life markers since Orli’s death. Hana had a birthday in June, Ian in October. We have had Passover and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which was — the counselors were not wrong!— by turns meaningful and excruciating. Families arrived in synagogue, or at the holiday table, dressed and smiling, their children growing ever older, while Orli remains the age at which we parted.
Quietly, we mark our elder daughter missing, and wait on others to do the same. On Passover my father proposed adding a cup (“cos,” in Hebrew) for Orli, the way we leave a cup for Elijah, noting that absence is woven into our observance. In late summer we even, ill advisedly, attended a wedding. It was too soon. We were not ready to be surrounded by unadulterated joy; we did not know how to hold ourselves, and our pain, without dulling the bride and groom’s shine. We fled during cocktail hour.
But I have also found I relish the occasional dark humor of other parents who have lost children, who recognize the macabre place we all live, how comically awful it is to run into people who still don’t know. “How’s the family?” a writer I ran into asked me the other day. I wanted to say, “So Hana started volleyball, and, well, Orli’s dead.” Orli would have laughed. Instead I changed the subject.
I’ve been in awe of the strength and cheek of Hana, who decided to pen a letter to the writers of a children’s television program to tell them what real drama looks like (her sister’s seizure! Her miserable, hospitalized 14th birthday! The morning of her sister’s death, when she said a final goodbye); of Ian, who gets up daily and throws himself into parenting as though the world hadn’t ended in March.
This first Thanksgiving without Orli will also be the first time a group of friends and family that had traditionally gathered this time of year will be together since before Covid and cancer. The last time we assembled for the holiday the children ran freely in the hallways of our friends’ apartment building, careening along beige walls and dragging their sticky hands, making a hilariously loud ruckus near the elevators. I can see Orli, her hair still long, untouched by the ravages of cancer treatment, by turns serious and silly, chasing her sister and cousins, healthy, red-cheeked, unaware of what was to come. I have a photo of her there as a toddler, in a dress from my childhood, a red-checkered pinafore, years away from the abyss.
I already long had a mixed relationship with Thanksgiving, partly because it always lands on or around my birthday. I loathed, as a child, that friends would be away, that school cupcakes almost never arrived on the actual day. As an adult the holiday neutralized — even, briefly, got happier.
Then Orli had her first biopsy on my birthday, a few days before Thanksgiving, in 2019. My relationship to the holiday tilted once more. As we waited in pre-op, she worried she had ruined my birthday; I promised her there was no place I’d rather be. That first cancer Thanksgiving Orli was in terrible pain, pale and wan and yet, unbelievably, smiling in the few photos I took that week. Chemotherapy had not yet begun; her diagnosis, let alone prognosis, was still elusive.
We rushed to assemble a home-based holiday with as much cheer as we could muster. She told us she felt like she was in a movie; we wished it were so. One night, as she lay in the bath, she implored me not to cry in front of her; it scared her. So I didn’t. Instead we watched “The Greatest Showman” on repeat, and sang and cooked for many more people than we had on hand. For all the Thanksgivings that came after, I drew courage just being together.
We have tried to keep Orli with us, even as we feel ourselves slipping further away. These days I look for traces in how she approached holidays, and every day. I find myself seeking comfort in Orli’s journal notes of how proud she was of Hana for creating Ian’s birthday party one year ago (a Formula One theme), and her joy last holiday season in receiving tickets to “Wicked.” I love to hear the way Orli stories reach people, and receiving notes from her peers who let me in on things I might not have known: her favorite flower, a moment in which she extended a kindness, or was bolder than they felt they could be. I love hearing that her face is still on someone’s home screen, or that a friend took her with them, in spirit, to a concert she would have loved. Not long after she died I stumbled across a note she’d tucked into my desk drawer, written on a handmade cut-out heart, that said, “I love you Ima, no matter what.” It sits now in a lucite frame, next to me. I see her beloved foxes everywhere.
It is these chispas (“sparks” in English), as you might say in Spanish, that let me face each small daily indignity of grief: when I am asked at a restaurant “How many will you be?” and I find myself searching for the right number, when I feel my heart seize each time I see siblings together and watch Hana watching them, when I hear the opening beats of “Anti-Hero” and think of Orli, asking for Taylor Swift, in yet another operating room.
We are fundamentally rewired as a family, as humans. We face the world differently, holding loss, in both rage and sadness. This holiday season, this year, countless others have joined us in this awful place. In this time of mass bereavement, as so many will be wondering how to set their tables, or if they will even be able to gather at all, I keep wondering if the key to seeing each other’s humanity is in somehow recognizing how universal the terrible ongoing nature of loss is, how human it makes us, how frail, how essential each day is, when none of us has any idea about the next.
I wonder how we might all move forward, not just as each holiday comes, but as each day passes, not better, but altered. Meanwhile, the gratitude I’ll have this Thanksgiving will still come: from having had the chance to know this love, even in its pain.
Sarah Wildman is a staff editor and writer in Opinion. She is the author of “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.