Christmas 2021 flattened me. Unexpectedly, grief overpowered everything. This was our fourth winter holiday season without my husband. Just a few weeks ago, both of our children were here. On Thanksgiving 2021, we ate turkey and stuffing. We played games and watched movies. We discussed school, schedules, friends, and family. My heart overflowed. I didn’t know such sweet celebrations could still be possible.

Yet at the same time, my stepfather’s health had been seriously, rapidly declining. He lay in a borrowed hospital bed at home, in a sun room. A hospice nurse visited him, bringing medications.  My mother spent her days caring for him. Then, she spent nights alone in their once-shared bed. I imagine her worried, exhausted, dreading the looming end. A couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, my sister called: after 31 years of marriage, our mother had been widowed.

My daughter and I flew south to attend the service. At the funeral home, while I was with my mother, a strange man approached my daughter, “Where are you from?” She answered, “Upstate NY.”  “No, I mean, ethnically,” he clarified. “Oh. I was born in China.” At this, the strange man looked surprised. “There aren’t many of your kind around here,” he told her.

During the service, my daughter and I held hands. “Are you okay?” I whispered. “Yes,” she replied, apparently puzzled. Then she seemed to think about where we were, what was happening, and asked, “Wait — are YOU?”

I was. And yet, I ached for my mother. I still do. The visceral pain and shock of new loss defy description. For me, when my husband died, the funeral focused my attention, numbing my grief. The children and I had a purpose, a plan — people were coming. We had flights to meet, beds to make, and food to order. But then, that all ended. The future yawned open, blank and barren.

My birthday had arrived a couple of weeks after my husband died.  This was the first milestone day to face without him. “Who cares? It’s just a birthday — I’ll be fine,” I told people. But I wasn’t. It wasn’t anything even close to fine. And sometimes, it’s still not. This holiday ambushed me with grief, even though it’s been more than three years, four months, two weeks, and five days.

Christmas 2021 arrived a couple of weeks after my stepfather died. This was the first milestone day for my mother to face without him. Probably, she was wiser than I had been. I imagine that she knew and had expected that on this day, and on future days, she’d feel the phantom pain of his absence.

As widows, we each find ourselves in a foreign land. It may feel as if there aren’t many of our kind around here. Over time, more of us arrive. We’re each unique, and we’ve taken different paths, and yet — we’re each learning to live without our person, in a strange new world, grappling with lifelong loss.