When Holidays Hurt

Why is it the joy of others makes my hurt ache more acutely?

My mom died 7 months ago.


Mom with sisters April, Val, and Carla

I remember a deep sadness settling over me around 6 months. At that point, her death was becoming reality. She wasn’t gone on a prolonged vacation. My initial daily impulses to text her pictures of Hannah had waned to weekly occurrences.


Mom with Hannah, Fall 2016

And though for me time has made her death painfully real, for those who knew her only as “Val’s mom,” these months have eroded the memory of that abrupt event.

If you’ve lost, you’ve experienced this. Your dear friend’s life stopped–it feels like yours with it—while everyone else’s goes on.

Thanksgiving exists in Kenya only insofar as we expats create it.

On Thursday I was visiting with a Kenyan friend–Carol runs one of the small shops by the hospital—when she wished me, “Happy Thanksgiving.” It was 2:00 in the afternoon and the holiday hadn’t occurred to me!

If you’ve lost, you know the power of death to transform holidays into horrible days. My forgetfulness seemed a boon, enabling me to carry on with studying Swahili and making chapatti free from that burden of grief.

Thursday evening the Roberts, another missionary family, hosted a gathering to sing and share thanks. We were encouraged to hear how God has provided this year amid election strife and doctors’ and nurses’ strikes and sickness and confusion.

Thanksgiving dinner at Tenwek*

The greatest blessing I received that night was this: pumpkin bars.

Yes, in Kenya we crave those “hard-to-gets.” Clark dreams of apple cider and sharp Vermont cheddar cheese. I remember fondly the innumerable bags of Goldfish crackers stashed around my hospital work area.


Thanksgiving pies at Tenwek (so much pie!)*

But the gift of this dessert went beyond a satisfied sweet tooth.

Pumpkin bars have long been my favorite fall treat. Every year–once a year at Thanksgiving–my mom would make them. Served warm with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, my sisters and I could finish off a 13X9 pan of that gourd goodness with appropriate efficiency.

This week, as I ate, I remembered mom.

I remembered her love for holidays. Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays were preceded by months of preparation. As young children–pre-calendar awareness—we knew the filling freezer shelfs signaled the approach of one of those special days.

As adults, we didn’t need frozen peanut butter pie or cheesy-onion-broccoli casserole to lure us back home. But mom loved us, and she knew a little butter and cream wouldn’t hurt familial relations!

Thanksgiving 2016 with my family

Jenny Roberts didn’t realize, but in making those pumpkin bars she enabled me to grieve mom with joy and gratitude.

This year, I am thankful for Jenny Roberts, for local pumpkin, for my mom.


Mom visiting Tenwek, September 2015

And I’m thankful for all of you who support us. Through you the Lord has brought us to Kenya and provided a home, a church, a family, and work at a hospital where He is moving every day to transform lives.


(*photo credit: Dean Cowles)

7 thoughts on “When Holidays Hurt

  1. Pingback: When Holidays Hurt

  2. Yep, holidays are hard. They bring back so many memories and that alone is bittersweet. You’re making new memories of course, and hopefully the sting of your Moms loss will lessen some with time. I remember our first Thanksgiving in Norway with a borrowed chicken. 😊 hugs from me to you.


  3. Val,

    Praying for you this holiday season. Thankful for how something as simple as a pumpkin bar is able to help in the grieving process. ☺

    Your sister in Christ,


  4. I wonder what life would be like without hurt and pain. But I do know that when life is hard, is when I reach out to my God even more. My dad died the day after Thanksgiving and two short years later my husband died suddenly just one week before Christmas. The holidays will never be the same. But with God’s grace I have made it through and get stronger every year.
    May God bless you Val as you travel down the road of grief.


  5. Val – thank you for your honesty as you wrestle through this thing called grief. My best friend passed away two years ago on December 2 and I remember her family having thanksgiving in the hospital with her shortly before she died. It makes this time of the year difficult for me as well! Praying with you as you continue your work in Kenya and as you process through the grief of your mom. Much love to you, Clark, and sweet Hannah!


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