11/26/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

When Grief and Absence Decorate Your Holiday Table

Erica Ford

My mother made a Thanksgiving feast each year, with enough food to last us through FDR's entire administration. Despite the fact that it was always, always just the four of us, we dressed up and sat in the dining room. We used antique napkin rings, fine china and crystal glasses.

My parents and brother came to America from Switzerland, and then I was born. We had no family nearby. Despite the fact that I was the only American, my mom did Thanksgiving better than Martha Stewart on speed.

I never got excited about Thanksgiving. My mom made a big dinner every night. The four of us sitting around a table eating was nothing special. I don't even really like turkey. Maybe that's why my mom used all the fancy dinnerware -- to make it feel different somehow. I swore that some day, my kids would have it different. I'd marry someone who, unlike me, has extended family. There would be this thing I hear about called a "kids' table" and these fun people called "cousins." Thanksgiving would be loud, fun, different from mine.

Here I am now, a mother of three, and Thanksgiving is often a lonely affair. My kids have cousins, but they rarely ever see them. My mother is dead. What makes it worse is that now my oldest daughter is catching on to the fact that we're often alone. "Who's coming for Thanksgiving? Are we going to see our cousins? Are we going to be alone? Is anyone visiting?"

No. Your grandfather is not visiting. You grandparents are not visiting. Your uncles and aunts and cousins are not visiting.

I think about my mom, treating just our little family like a flock of beloved long-lost relatives she hadn't seen in years. Giving us the royal treatment. Using her best silver and making the dinner so special even though, by all intents and purposes, it was barely different from any other dinner.

I don't want to do what she did at Thanksgiving. I wish I could do it, but I can't. The thought of setting out an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, acting like we're welcoming missed relatives when my extended family has become painfully unrecognizable, depresses me to no end. My mom is dead and her death caused devastation so far beyond the actual dying. When someone dies, you stand in the grave with them and you think, That's it. Oh my God. Death is the worst, the end, and now it's happened. We think all of the grief is bound up in that moment of leaving, and the biggest struggle will be with the fact that you'll never see them again. It's one of the few times a human being actually lives in the present.

But the consequences of the absence reach so far and infect so many parts of life that you cannot predict or imagine. It's like those Choose Your Own Adventure stories, where one decision creates one path and another decision creates a different path. But now each page of the story unfolds against your will, infected and changed by an absence.

So I don't want to relive those lonely Thanksgiving dinners with my own kids. I want them to feel loved by grandparents and uncles and aunts. I want them to think they have relatives who think they're special and important. I want my mother back. If she hadn't died, none of this would have happened.

I want to rewind time and stop her death and stop these repercussions that break my heart.

And then, yesterday, my 5-year-old called to me from the other room. "How do you spell 'Grandma'?"

I walked in to see what she was doing. She was making a Wii Mii character on the game pad. "I'm making Grandma," she said.

I have no idea why, out of the blue, my child would create an avatar of the grandmother she's never met on a Wii game my mother had never heard of and would never play. But I'm so glad she did.

My daughter, my mother, a video game conspired to scoop up my heart before it fell again, on yet another holiday.

My childhood family may have fallen apart, but my mother is still here. She's in me, in my children. I still won't make that fancy lonely Thanksgiving feast like my mother did, but they're going to know how important they are. And how thankful I am that they bring my mother into my life and into my holidays in ways like this.

Erica Ford is the author of the e-book Scotch Tape is Cheaper Than Botox available on Amazon.