The Empty Seat at the Table

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

This Thursday my family will spend our first Thanksgiving without my brother Robert, who passed away in January from melanoma. Many other grieving families will face the same specter: the empty seat at the table. So how can we balance the grief we still feel with the feelings of gratitude and joy Thanksgiving invites?

Celebrate the things that bring you joy in your daily life.

Holidays are notorious for making people feel pressured to be happy and have fun while doing unusual amounts of shopping, eating, cleaning, cooking, and socializing. Give yourself permission to step off the holiday rat wheel and you’ll have space to honor your loss while still celebrating simple pleasures. My mom decided not to cook and host the Thanksgiving meal this year. Now instead of stressing out over cleaning the house and cooking, my mom can visit friends, play with her granddaughter, and slow down the usual pace of her life in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Last year my daughter was born, the first grandchild in the family. She’s brought us boundless joy, and has been a welcome light in the darkness of Rob’s illness and death. I’m not sure she’s old enough to “get” Thanksgiving yet, but she’ll no doubt make us smile on Thursday just as she does every day.

Instead of expecting yourself or your grieving loved ones to muster over-the-top holiday joy, turn to the things that make you happy in your regular life. Eat your favorite foods on Thanksgiving instead of the traditional foods that many people don’t even care for. Watch football if that makes you happy. Or go for a walk. Curl up with a good book. End the day with a hot bath. Do whatever relaxes and nurtures you. Skip the malls and the websites. Curl up with loved ones and appreciate a day off from work, a day to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Create new traditions.

With my mom off-duty, we planned to go to a restaurant instead. We made reservations at one of our favorite places and looked forward to the treat of a delicious meal without prep or clean-up. But an invitation from a family friend was even more appealing, so we will go to their house on Thursday.

If you’re dreading the prospect of sitting down at a familiar table without a beloved familiar face, consider changing the scenery entirely. Go to a restaurant, ask a different family member to host, or see if a friend will have you over. Make new traditions at a new table and eliminate value judgments–different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

Change won’t eliminate your grief but may ease it. However you spend the holiday, find a meaningful way to honor your loved one.

I’m grateful that Rob was in my life.

This year I’ve decided to honor my brother’s memory by focusing my gratitude on having him in my life. Rob was a wonderful companion to share childhood with. He looked out for me. As an adult, he inspired me with his many achievements and the quiet determination with which he overcame major obstacles. We bonded over my pregnancy, as Rob looked forward to being an uncle and teaching his niece how to play tennis. Throughout his illness and treatments, Rob never complained of pain. Now when I think of him I’m inspired to work harder, follow my dreams, treat others with love and compassion, and appreciate this life I’ve been given.

 

 

How to Handle Rejection

Accepting Rejection

After being lucky enough to have a great freelance writing project fall into my lap last spring, I’ve started to look for more work. The most fun part of this process is brainstorming ideas. I get a lot of ideas while I’m driving, and there’s nothing like cruising along the highway, basking in one’s sure-to-be-genius stories and blog posts. The hardest part is, of course, actually writing those stories and blog posts. And the worst part of the process? That’s right, it’s everyone’s least favorite friend, rejection.

Rejection happens to everyone

Long before I submitted my first story to a literary journal, I was well-versed in rejection. From losing a friend to a cooler crowd, to not being selected as the 5th grade choral soloist for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and experiencing plenty of romantic rejection in high school and college, you might say I was a pro. But when it came to dealing with rejection, I was very much an amateur. I wallowed, I internalized, I held on way too long to what I wanted and didn’t see the many other possibilities in front of me. When I lived in the world as I wanted it to be, instead of as it actually was, I denied myself the opportunity to learn, grow, and work toward achieving my dreams.

Handling rejection gracefully is about knowing yourself

When I was younger, I didn’t know myself at all. That’s why I was trying out for chorus solos instead of writing stories. I wanted to fit in and be loved, so I tried to present myself in the image of the people I wanted as friends and dates. Finally, after three years of college I majored in English, but even then I didn’t have strong convictions about being a writer. My head was easily turned by different career ideas. I didn’t believe I could succeed or make a living as a writer, so I tried to do lots of other things. Fear guided my actions. I went to graduate school for creative writing, but let the criticism of classmates and professors unravel my novel-in-progress.

Only now, at 31, am I ready to say with conviction: “I’m a writer.” Whether I succeed or fail isn’t the most important thing. Satisfaction comes from knowing that I’m pursuing my dream. I’m putting myself out there and I’m going to give it my best effort.

Shake it off and move on

Now that I know myself, I’m not dependent on external praise or criticism to form my self-image. Whether others like what I’m doing, hate it, or are indifferent, my belief in myself doesn’t waver. That isn’t to say that rejection doesn’t still sting–of course it does. Everyone would rather hear “you’re awesome” than “you’re not what we’re looking for.” But I don’t take it personally. After all, do I like every book I read, every song I hear, or every person I meet? Of course not. Taste is subjective. So I recover from one rejection by moving on to another submission. What one editor doesn’t care for, another will want to publish. And any response from an editor, good or bad, is a sign that I’m out there, participating in the world I want to be part of. That’s definitely something to be excited about!

Writing with a Relaxed Mind

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Last week I updated my Mac’s operating system only to discover that my computer was now acting like a phone, sending me pop-up notifications of nearly everything: e-mail, text messages, and social media feeds. The new software made my computer run faster, but my stressed out brain ran slower. Constantly interrupted and distracted by the pop-ups, I couldn’t concentrate on a task, much less finish it, until I figured out how to disable this “convenient” feature.

When I was 24, I quit my full-time office job a few months ahead of my scheduled departure to teach English in Prague. Untethered from the strict routines of office life, I found myself with days so long and wide open they were scary. I wanted to write a novel but had no idea how. Long morning walks were helpful. I had nowhere to be and very little to worry about, so I observed my surroundings, studied the other people who were not sitting in a cubicle at 10 am, and daydreamed about my characters.

Now I am a mother, a teacher, and I’m still trying to write (a different) novel. My time is more limited, but as this tea bag reminded me, I still need a relaxed mind in order to dream up stories. I do my creative writing at night after my daughter goes to bed; it’s the last activity of my day. To prepare, I shun gadgets and multi-tasking. I relax my mind by writing in my journal, taking a bath, or talking to my husband. When I finally sit down to write, I’m holding a notebook and pen instead of a laptop. I may be physically tired, but my mind is open and ready to create.