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Robin Roberts: Grief May Change Some Holiday Traditions. But You Can Create New Ones

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Roberts is co-anchor of Good Morning America and the author of Everybody's Got Something.

The holidays are supposed to be a season of joy and cheer, but for some of us, they can be the hardest time of the year. TIME partnered with OptionB.Org, Sheryl Sandberg’s initiative, to commission essays from influential people who have struggled themselves about what has helped them during difficult holiday seasons in the past. In these pieces, as well as at optionb.org/holidays and #OptionBThere, you’ll find actions big and small that you can take to help yourself and others find moments of joy.

I always looked forward to Thanksgiving. It was never just my immediate family — my parents invited extended family, family of the extended family and whomever else was left in the neighborhood. All stragglers were welcome. My mom — who often joked that her food looked better than it tasted — made the quintessential Americana Thanksgiving meal: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry out of the can, yams with marshmallows and sweet potato pie. Her prized side was a rutabaga dish that I only remember my dad eating, and not always willingly!

In November 2012, however, I wouldn’t make it down to our family home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Myelodysplastic Syndrome took away my health and had deflated my holiday spirit — I was fighting for my life. I had just been released from the hospital after spending 30 days in isolation following a bone marrow transplant. My only foreseeable goal was to make it to 100 days post-transplant — my survival depended on it.

During my journey to rebuild my immune system and return to health, my doctors required me to be home in New York with limited contact with the outside world. Hand sanitizer and facemasks were handed out to all visitors, and hugs were not allowed. While I had my long-time partner Amber by my side, I wasn’t allowed to have KJ, my feisty Jack Russell Terrier. Every solitary day was another tick towards the 100-day mark.

In early November, I got the call from my sisters, who live down south. They were planning on bringing a very small group to come stay with me and Amber for Thanksgiving.

At first, I was hesitant. Without an appetite and with only a few hairs on my head, I couldn’t imagine sporting a festive sweater and gathering around the Thanksgiving table. This would also be the first holiday without my beloved mother, who passed away a week prior to my bone marrow transplant.

I felt a crushing pressure to be joyful, but all I felt was sick. I was mourning my health, and I was also mourning momma.

Thanksgiving Day came; the doorbell rang; and in stormed my family. I felt instant relief — they were warm, joyful, and, above all, they were understanding. They didn’t expect me to play host or carry the conversation. They simply wanted me to know that they were there for me, in any way I needed them to be.

Sitting at the dinner table, feeling the support and love of my family, I was struck with a feeling — something momma used to say after my father died. I was feeling happy sorrow.

When dad passed away shortly before Thanksgiving in 2004, momma needed a break from tradition, an option B. She was unsure if she could handle hosting the whole family and putting on the show without him — and who would eat the rutabaga?

She alerted me, “Robin Rene, I’m coming to spend Thanksgiving with you in New York City.”

So, I brought momma to have Thanksgiving dinner at the home of my colleague and dear friend, Diane Sawyer. Her home was filled with an eclectic group of wonderful people. Momma loved Diane, though was a bit surprised that mashed potatoes were not served with her turkey — but she approved of all else. Her face brightened amongst new friends and new traditions.

Our first Thanksgiving without dad didn’t have to be sad — it just had to be different. Instead of mourning our past tradition, we changed it up, and were able to look back on all those years in Pass Christian with fondness. Momma’s experience gave me comfort during my own battle. Thanksgiving spent in my own home, with a much smaller group and without canned cranberry sauce would have to be the new normal. At least for a while.

Just remember: This too shall pass, but now would be good!

For more essays about finding happiness during the holidays, read:

  • Kesha, on her mantra for confronting mental illness in the season of giving.
  • Katie Couric, on how grief teaches you to have empathy for those celebrating beside you.
  • Patton Oswalt, on conquering holiday loneliness.
  • Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, on how tragedy can strengthen resolutions.
  • OptionB.Org’s collection of personal stories and advice.
  • OptionBThere

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