As I grieve my grandparents with my family, this special holiday food tradition has helped us heal

As we grieve the loss of three of my grandparents, my parents and I have found joy in the holiday tradition of opening food advent calendars. (Photo: Megan duBois)
As we grieve the loss of three of my grandparents, my parents and I have found joy in the holiday tradition of opening food advent calendars. (Photo: Megan duBois)

Advent calendars are a huge part of my family's Christmas traditions. When I was a kid, my parents would buy me cute chocolate-filled calendars filled with low-quality chocolate, but I didn't care. As I've gotten older, the tradition is still alive, but now my parents and I buy a few more deluxe advent calendars — ones filled with cheese, wine and beer — as well as a more decadent chocolate option, made by German chocolatier Moser Roth, in lieu of the cheap chocolate version I had growing up.

During the pandemic, I started filming my parents opening our Advent calendars almost every night, then posting the short clips to Instagram. It was a fun way to connect with my followers, but it was also something for us to look forward to in a season of immense loss.

That season of grief has continued through the past two Christmases and is now heading into a third. In 2020, I lost my paternal grandfather to cancer just six weeks before Christmas. He lived just a few miles from our house, and we would spend part of Christmas Eve with him. All of the sudden, our world was changed and Christmas Eve was a lot quieter.

In August 2021, my maternal grandmother, who I lovingly called Memaw, died suddenly. Her house is where we would spend the other part of Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day, surrounded by family. Now her house sits dark, with the memories of holiday seasons of the past lurking in the shadows waiting for the light to be turned back on, even if it's by another family eventually.

This October, my maternal grandfather died. While my family didn't spend much time with him because of the distance (we live in Florida, and he lived in Illinois), the weekly phone calls have stopped and the pieces I have left of him are old voicemails and memories of him visiting when I was a kid.

As my own grief has continued to expand over the past few years, I saw it growing in my parents as well. Not only was I processing the loss of my family members, but I was also watching my mom and dad lose their parents, which was especially heartbreaking.

The Christmas season is always challenging with juggling social events and family time. Add in the loss of a loved one, and grief overwhelms what was once a festive holiday celebration. The empty chair where your lost loved one once sat seems to take over the room like a ticking time bomb, and if you look at it in just the right moment it triggers something inside you. The tears start flowing with the grief and anguish of loss.

Even though some holiday traditions have stopped or changed with the loss of family members, one that hasn't is my parents and I opening Advent calendars together. When the holiday season draws near, my mom and I go out to find the best Advent calendars of the season to bring home and anxiously await when we can start opening each of the little flaps.

My mom and dad with this year's selection of Advent calendars. (Photo: Megan duBois)
My mom and dad with this year's selection of Advent calendars. (Photo: Megan duBois)

We always buy food calendars because we like trying new brands and sometimes we find a few new favorite items that make their way into our pantry staples. In the past, we've bought ones like the Aldi Holiday Magic Wine Advent Calendar and the Bonne Maman Advent Calendar, which is filled with fruit spreads and honey. In fact, from the latter of the two, we've found our new favorite jam, strawberry and red currant. We've also had boozy popcorn, hot sauce and cheese Advent calendars.

This year, instead of buying every food calendar we could find, we snagged everything in one trip to the grocery store. We have four foodie-themed Advent calendars: wine, beer, cheese and chocolate. Each night we open the corresponding day's flap and share some festive thoughts on what we find inside with my Instagram followers.

Opening the advent calendars is often the one bright spot on days when the darkness of grief rattles inside our minds like a ball inside a glass jar. It was, and still is, a time when my parents and I gather in the living room, my dad says something silly for the entire world to hear and we share what was in each calendar for the night.

My mom and I look forward to whatever my dad is going to say because we honestly never know what's going to happen. Some nights he sings, some nights he dances and some nights he has a Santa Claus countdown that he tells people to share with their kids. These little messages are never rehearsed and behind the camera, I'm often stifling my laughter so everyone can hear what my dad has to say.

Over the past three years, my parents and I have gotten messages from people around the world saying they love watching my mom and dad. They ask for more videos of them or wonder if they have their own social media pages (they don't…yet). I've also gotten messages prior to the holidays asking if we are doing Advent calendars again this year, and the answer is always yes.

I share these sentiments with my parents, not only because they like knowing that people enjoy watching them, but because it reminds the three of us that even if we are having a hard day, we can always brighten up someone else's through something as easy and fun as opening an Advent calendar.

As we move through the third holiday season of losing another parent and grandparent, I'm reminded that grief never leaves us. Like the glass jar with the ball inside, the jar may get bigger as we grow around our grief, but it never truly disappears. Even when the tides of life are calm and the jar isn't rattling, the grief is still there.

During the holidays, the jar may rattle some and grief comes in waves, but what my parents and I have learned is that opening Advent calendars and sharing some festive cheer with others will oftentimes brighten our own day, even as the ball in the jar is shaking and moving and the chair remains empty with the memories of holidays past.

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