Five months after a drunk driver killed my daughter, our family braced for our first holiday season without her.
Helen Marie was 16 when a teen driver, impaired on alcohol and marijuana, ran her down while she was rollerblading on a bike path on a sunny afternoon in June 2000.
I don’t remember much from those early months of acute grief, and that is a blessing. But I do remember how heavy it all felt, like wearing a lead suit that only time would take off. How, if not for our surviving child, John, I might not have had the strength to recognize the season at all.
There is no roadmap for grief. And if you are grappling with loss this holiday – whether it’s the first year or the 10th – let me assure you that there is no right or wrong way to get through it.
But somehow, you do. Even when it seems impossible. You keep living.
For us, the once joyous season loomed like a gathering storm that first year.
Helen Marie had been at the center of Thanksgiving celebrations with our extended family, corralling her cousins and giving them parts in a Thanksgiving play she created and directed. HM, as we called her, was a drama kid, and these productions were practice for what we imagined would be a much bigger stage someday. In the run-up to Christmas, the whole family would participate in a community play we performed to exhaustion. We put up a tree, baked endlessly, opened gifts on Christmas morning and then hosted an open house for a hundred family and friends in the afternoon.
But now part of us was missing, stolen by a violent, preventable crime that still accounts for more deaths on our nation’s roads than anything else.
The first Thanksgiving after her death, we left home, seeking refuge at a dear friend’s home two states away. I released myself of any expectations. I let people help me. I forgave those who couldn’t. I made a plan. I gave myself permission to slip away when it became too much to bear. When I just needed to be alone. When it was over, there was, mixed up with all that pain, a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that the anticipation of it had been worse than the day itself.
A month later, we got through Christmas Day, too. There was a tree – for our son – but no baking, and there wouldn’t be for many years. There were gifts on Christmas morning, lunch with Grandma Jane, but no open house. Instead, our shattered family of three headed for the airport that afternoon to catch a flight to Denver.
We spent a week with close friends unafraid of our pain and flew home on New Year’s Eve. Back home in Miami, we climbed into a cab. I wept all the way home. It felt so strange, walking into our house and expecting HM to be there but knowing she wouldn’t be. Knowing she never would be again.
Nineteen years have passed since HM’s death. I never wish to return to those early days and months, to that year of impossible firsts.
I am so grateful to say that each year got a little bit easier. That eventually, I began to bake again, even making HM’s favorite cookies for Miami’s DUI squad. New people came into our lives. Our family began new traditions and held on to some of the old ones – the golden ones.
It took four years, but I even made another turkey.