Grief, The Magic Kingdom, and Ignoring Holiday “Rules”

It’s been four years since my mom died, and I miss her. While holidays like Mother’s Day are “grief-y,” the truth is that my moments of longing to be with her happen more in the regular, everyday moments. I miss her when I walk through New York City and cars are honking their horns and radios are blaring because she loved the noise of the city; and when I want to brag–full brag, not just humble-brag–about my daughter to someone; and when a feel-good Broadway musical like “Six” comes out that I know she’d want to see with me…twice.

That said, I know plenty of grieving people suffer extra hard on Mother’s Day (and other big holidays) so I thought I’d share this wisdom from–who else?–my mom…

Author Michelle Cove and her mom, back in the day, ignoring “the rules”

Do the unexpected. Don’t look for permission.

My mom was really big on ignoring societal rules that say there’s a right way and wrong way to behave. To her, the question was never, “what would be proper or respectful?” The question was only, “What’s gonna help you get through this? Do that!”

Case in point: When my dad died in spring of 1989, I was 20 years old. When fall rolled around that year, she called me at college and said, “Hey, I have an idea for how to celebrate Thanksgiving this year without dad!” The idea of having a turkey dinner with a bunch of relatives, and an empty seat where my dad would be…I was hoping to avoid that, and also that the whole country could maybe cancel Thanksgiving.

“Okay,” I asked tentatively, “what is it?”

“Let’s go to Disney World,” she yelled.


“Did you hear me?” she asked enthusiastically.

“I think so…did you just say we should go to Disney World?”

“Yes,” she said. I could feel her beaming over the phone. “What do you think?”

I had a moment where I thought of telling her we couldn’t do that. That’s not how a normal person acts when grieving. What you do is stay home and cook and cry and choke down dry turkey. And maybe, just maybe, tell some stories about your dead dad. Right?

On the other hand, I kind of liked the audacity of skipping that scene and going straight to the Magic Kingdom to ride Space Mountain and eat Mickey Rice Krispie Treats on the way to The Haunted Mansion. No one there would ask how I was feeling about my grief or feel sorry for me or make awful remarks like, “Hey, smile, your dad would not want you to be sad today!”

Disney World or bust…

So I said yes. I never could resist her wild invites that tickled her. And so we spent a few days in late November in The Magic Kingdom. And we giggled a lot. And we talked some about my father and how much we missed him; and we did some weeping; and we stood in line for It’s a Small World and debated whether to go on it a second time (we went a third time). 

That Thanksgiving was weird and wonderful and surreal–and it taught me that there truly is no right way to grieve. There’s what gets you through.

Am I suggesting you go to a theme park for holidays when you’re grieving? Maybe. But you don’t have to. You could do something else that’s unexpected or possibly outrageous, if that feels right. Not everyone will understand it and that’s okay. It might not be a perfect day (it won’t be). But if the idea is kind of appealing to you, I’ll just tell you this: you don’t need permission. You can go ahead and do it–and then laugh at the memory years down the road.

Michelle Cove is the Director of Communications at Experience Camps. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and national bestselling author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.