Advice For People Who Are Alone On Thanksgiving (From Someone Who Once Was)

After my divorce was finalized six years ago, the first holiday I faced as a single woman was Thanksgiving.

I remember frantically running my fingers across the 35 pages of legal jargon that made up my divorce papers, searching for "Thanksgiving" and praying that I could start this single mom thing off on the right foot. No such luck. There it was in black and white: “During odd numbered years, the child will be in legal custody of the father."

Life may not have given me what I thought I always wanted, but it’s always given me everything I need.

I was devastated. After 14 years of marriage, I was going to be in utter solitude on a holiday centered around togetherness. The most paralyzing part wasn’t that I didn’t have anyone to spend the day with, but that I had to hand over the only thing that I loved, gave me purpose, and brought me any semblance of joy: my child.

Thinking about that first Thanksgiving in retrospect makes me shudder. I was numb through most of it, but I do remember tears and withdrawal. I remember willing the time to pass so I didn’t have to keep envisioning all the merriment and bread-breaking taking place at seemingly every table in the country during a time when the only thing breaking at my table was my heart.

It’s been almost six years since that day and I’ve since grown in ways I didn’t know were possible. When I look back at that sobbing, withering shell of a person that November day in 2009, I don’t recognize her. I do, however, remember her pain and wish I could go back, wipe her tears, and tell her these four things:

1. You’re not alone.

If you’re on the brink of your first holiday on your own or without your children, you may hate what I’m about to say. I hated it, too. Every time some well-meaning do-gooder crooned, “I know you feel alone, but you’re never really alone, sweetie.” I wanted to scream. I was alone in every possible way, or so it felt.

But I've learned over time that I always had me, but it wasn't until me became all I had that I was able to think of myself as an actual “person.” I had been too busy taking care of everyone else to realize that my wants, needs, and desires had to be taken into account, too. Your best friend, the only one who can get you out of bed, is the same one pulling the covers up over your head right now. Take care of her. She matters.

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2. You’re setting an example.

When I was in the throes of divorce depression, I started seeing a therapist. During one particularly ugly session, I broke down and wailed, “Why is this happening? What was all of this for?” She was silent for a minute and then said, “Perhaps there are people that will need you one day. Maybe you’re going through this to eventually set an example for someone else."

"I'm sorry, what? I can't even brush my own teeth without crying," I thought. "And what, praytell, might my great example be? How to screw up your life in 35 years or less?"

But lo and behold, six months later I began getting messages from people going through painful divorces. One at first, then ten, then more. People who said they had seen me go through my divorce and wondered how I had handled it so gracefully. Gracefully?! I'd been eating grape jelly sandwiches and watching Snapped for literal months on end.

The point is, these people had been observing me without my knowledge. They called upon me in their time of need. They shared their separation stories and pain and looked to me for guidance. To be trusted and offer solace in this way not only helped me come to terms with my own grief, but it has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Jelly-stained bras notwithstanding.

The year I spent crying in bed, there were hundreds of people around me doing the same thing.

3. You have the power to start your own traditions.

After the sob-and-snot-fest of 2009, I started realizing that, for better or for worse, this was my life now. For years, I’d always heard that you cannot serve others and feel depressed at the same time.

So by the time the following Thanksgiving rolled around, my internal monologue was pretty strong: get out of your selfish head and do something, woman. And just like that, my son and I started our first “new family” tradition. Every year, we cook and deliver food to the homeless, elderly, and disabled. We talk to every person. We listen to their stories.

Through this experience, I've made the humbling and heartbreaking realization that the year I spent crying in bed, there were hundreds of people around me doing the same thing.

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4. Your family is who you choose.

This year, I’ve blocked off Thanksgiving to spend with my best single mom friend in the world. We’re going to get massages, eat a dinner we can’t afford, freeze our butts off watching the Christmas lighting ceremony and laugh like fools because that’s what we do best. Your family may not always look like you expect it to, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful.

Life may not have given me what I thought I always wanted, but it’s always given me everything I need. Through darkness, I’ve cultivated the greatest friendships and experiences of my life and I feel joy and hope again. I remember the days when I never thought I would. That, without question, is something that I can be truly thankful for.

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