Life Will Be Different, But It Can Still Be Good

Author: Heather Gray Blalock

The first holiday season after my husband was killed in action was when I began to sense that God must have a sense of humor. A Costco-sized bag of candy each had bribed my children out of trick-or-treating. The thought of cold creeping as a single parent with masked little ones was more than I could handle. Feelings of guilt lingered over that until Thanksgiving. So, I decided I would pull it together and at least attempt to participate in the upcoming festivities. I made plans to spend America’s holiday with nonmilitary friends where we lived in Colorado. I even agreed to prepare a rather time-consuming dish — a decision I regretted the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving when I realized I must join the masses at the grocery store who had apparently also lost their ability to meal plan appropriately. I gathered my three still pajama-clad children into my Wrangler for a quick trip. All was well until we stopped at a traffic light.

Across the street from where we sat waiting to turn, was a Christmas tree lot. Holiday music filled the air, and several kids happily danced around while someone on the far side of their car tied a tree on top. A smiling mom appeared next to the little ones, and, after opening their door for them, they all piled in. As she was shutting the door, a man in a military uniform came around to double-check the security of the car topper. Then the two lingered in an intimate embrace before leaving. Everything around me seemed to spin. My eyes clouded with tears as the grief wave slammed me. I have no idea how long I sat at the light, but the honking behind me indicated it had been too long. When I came to my senses, I didn’t go to the grocery store. I just started driving south and didn’t stop until we were in New Mexico. My children were thoroughly confused, but still young enough to be easily appeased with ice cream and the prospect of an unexpected adventure with mom.

Heather and Kids with Welcome to New Mexico in background

Thanksgiving morning dawned with us in an empty Holiday Inn and me feeling like an abject failure. The TV in the breakfast room showed a local news station advertising a traditional Thanksgiving feast being served to the homeless community at an old train station in downtown…wherever we were. Still in Tuesday night’s pajamas on Thursday morning and feeling very displaced, I decided we would easily blend in and be fed in the process. The people facilitating the event apparently did not agree. 

While waiting in line outside the station, a very kind man informed us that volunteers need not wait to get in and pulled us from the crowd. Before I could explain, we were donning hairnets and gloves and had individual assignments. My 8-year-old joined me in the serving line, and my 6- and 4-year-olds were given baskets of rolls to hand out. Not long into our unanticipated volunteer service, I felt a tap on my shoulder and was greeted by a reporter who, with the camera already rolling, sought permission to interview my daughter. 

“It’s wonderful you all gave up your family Thanksgiving to give back to others,” the reporter said. “Tell us a little about you and your family and why you’re here.” Ever truthful, my darling daughter replied, “Well, my daddy died in Afghanistan. We left Colorado for the grocery store yesterday morning and somehow ended up here today.” 

It was then I knew God had a sense of humor. Only he could turn my grief-driven meltdown into volunteer service highlighted on the evening news. I also realized there was no point in trying to avoid the holidays and all that comes with them — no matter how painful and different they may feel after losing a loved one. 

The last thing the chaplain who had performed my husband’s ceremony at Arlington told me was, “Life will be different, but it can still be good.” After the Thanksgiving fiasco, I purposed in my heart to embody the words of that wise man for our first Christmas without my husband. Without him, it was impossible for us to have the exact same celebration of traditions anyway. So, I decided to embrace the different that could still be good. Knowing an empty monogrammed stocking with his name on it and ornaments with our family pictures over the years would likely be too difficult to see, I bought all new Christmas decorations. We even went to that same tree lot and bought a real tree for the first time. Normally, my husband and I were too conservative (or perhaps lazy) to do much to the outside of the house for the holidays, but that year I let the kids have free reign over choosing how to decorate. They started with a spindly, white wire tree with blinking, colored lights. It was painstakingly installed front and center by my elated children and their friends. Every inch of space would be covered with colored lights flashing out of sync with the bright red, plastic candy canes unevenly spaced down the sidewalk and driveway. Our wonderful church family converged to help them, and when it was all finished, Christmas had thrown up on our house. 


Blalock children putting up decorations

Blalock children and Heather in silly pose on porch

Blalock children at beach


I honestly had never seen my children as happy as they were that first Christmas. The entire family got on board with embracing the different, and, for the first and only time since, all their cousins were at our house on Christmas morning. The next year, we spent Christmas at the beach, but the monogrammed stockings bearing our names came with us. In year three, we intentionally went back to New Mexico and then — together — we hung my husband’s perpetually empty stocking beside ours at home that Christmas. By year four, we felt much more stable but had fully embraced the crazy…I mean different. 

We've moved three times since that first Christmas 11 years ago, and though I roll my eyes at it every year, the spindly, white wire tree still has a place of honor in every front yard.  Life is different, but it really can still be good. And God definitely has a sense of humor, for which I am eternally grateful this and every holiday season.

Heather Gray Blalock is th surviving spouse of Major Walter David Gray, U.S. Air Force, and a TAPS Peer Mentor.

Photos courtesy of Heather Gray Blalock.