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The First Christmas After a Death

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“The Christmas cards,” one of the women in the group said, and all the heads nodded slowly.

We had come together to talk about how to get through a Christmas after suffering the death of a loved one. Many in the group were widows, but not all. Children and parents had also died.

The brochure had said “the first Christmas after,” but some of us read it differently. One woman who was there had lost her husband 8 years before. Grief knows no time frame.

“Christmas cards,” I thought, and my stomach turned to lead.

I remembered the first Christmas after my son had died. ‘What happened this year,’ that’s what you always write about. What happened this year is Chet died.

I had always had a photo Christmas card of me and the kids.

There were no Christmas cards that year.

The woman sitting in front of me turned and whispered, “My poor mother. Can you imagine what it will be like to not sign ‘Martha and Fred’?”

I couldn’t imagine.

“How many years?” I asked.

“40,” she replied.

How do you get through that first Christmas (or whichever one it is)? It’s an ordeal. The colors seem garish, the sounds, nerve-wracking, and the people, sometimes like clowns. You walk under a different Star of Bethlehem.

The leader kept trying to get us to suggest areas of concern, but what we did was talk about our loved ones. You love to hear their name, you know? And to speak it. We heard the names, and then asked one another about “Fred,” and “Tina,” and “Dad,” and there were tears and grins.

Some things that can be said about that first Christmas (or whichever one it is) follow. I don’t know that they’ll help, unless information and understanding help, but here they are:

1. When we grieve we have no energy.

Decisions are hard to make, the smallest chore seems monumental, ordinarily joyous things are not, things that used to bother you don’t bother you any more, you don’t defend yourself well, to pretend takes too much effort, and you need lots of rest.

“She is seeking the solace of sleep,” my sister would tell people who called.

Nothing matters. The oven goes out, dinner has to be canceled and you have to reconvene in a restaurant. You wonder why something like that would upset the others so much.

2. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Do what you know you should do. Think of a time when it mattered, if necessary – supplements, eating right, rest, talking to someone, keeping your obligations manageable, getting exercise.

Your immune system will be shot. Outsource it. Therapy and support groups bolster your immune system.

3. You can cancel Christmas if you want to.

Sleep, take a walk, or study something intellectual to get your mind off emotional things.

4. You can also change the venue.

One woman took her grown kids downtown to a hotel and they celebrated there.

5. People want to help you and they don’t know how.

Nothing will really help. You just want them back. But let others “do something”. If they ask and you can’t think of anything, ask them to “do something”. They’ll figure it out. Everyone knows houses must be cleaned, dogs walked, groceries bought, and meals prepared.

6. Alcohol doesn’t help anything.

7. Explain what you need.

One woman in the group told us how much she had wanted to have the gathering at her home as usual the first year after her husband’s death, but they wouldn’t let her. Another woman told us how much she didn’t want to have it at her house. How can others know? Tell them.

Say, “If I get up and leave the table, just let me go. I’ll be OK. I’ll come back when I’m ready.”

Half the women there who’d lost husbands wanted to be called a “widow.” The other half hated the word. If someone has to guess, they can guess wrong, so speak out as best you can.

8. You might get some relief helping others – serving dinner to the homeless, or buying gifts for a family in need.

Then again you might not, but at least you’ll have killed some time.

9. What will you do with their Christmas stocking?

One woman set out her husband’s Christmas stocking with a journal beside it for visitors to write in it. Another woman slept with her daughter’s stocking under her pillow.

10. Avoid malls.

You see things you would buy for the one who is gone, you see the happy couples when you are no longer a couple, you see the cherubic face of a little boy who looks like the one you lost.

You hear the music. Even a little is too much. Remember you can turn the radio and television off.

In the words of a caring friend of mine, “Have a Christmas.” You may be hard put to supply the adjective, and that’s okay. If you choose to observe the day, “Have a Christmas,” and understand that those who slip and tell you, “Well, I hope you have a Merry Christmas,” don’t know what they’re saying.

The “firsts” are difficult – the first anniversary, the first birthday, the first Valentine’s Day, the first fall, summer, spring and winter.

“How odd,” you may think, when the first snow falls in the first winter after, or when the first daffodil blooms in the first spring after. “How odd that’s the same when the most important things are not.”

Prescriptions and predictions are annoying. Time does heal many people and it becomes less raw with time; however, if that time does come, it comes at its own pace. Be forgiving of yourself and others, and, well, have a Christmas. Or don’t. One way or another that particular day will pass and you will have survived your first Christmas without them.

Together our group had a holiday memorial to our loved ones, lighting the 4 candles in the Advent wreath. No one knows who wrote the prayer, but here it is:


As we light these 4 candles in honor of you, we light one for our grief, one for our courage, one for our memories, and one for our love.

This candle represents our grief. The pain of losing you is intense. It reminds us of the depth of our love for you.

This candle represents our courage – to confront our sorrow, to comfort each other, to change our lives.

This candle is in your memory – the times we laughed, the times we cried, the times we were angry with each other, the silly things you did, the caring and joy you gave us.

This candle is the light of love. As we enter this holiday season day by day we cherish the special place in our hearts that will always be reserved for you. We thank you for the gift your living brought to each of us. We love you.

And then you can say their name.


Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, , Coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. Coach Certification Program - fast, affordable, no-residency, training coaches worldwide. Email for free ezine.

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Susan Dunn
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