Christmas Joy, Christmas Grief

It’s been (early) Christmas at my house for more than a week now; we’re wrapping up (or should I say we’ve already unwrapped?) our holiday celebrations — all but the church service — before December 25. It’s been wonderful having my kids here and celebrating together — this has been a lovely holiday season, our seventh without my husband, their father.

During a few moments, though, “old” grief barged in, casting its shadow across the glow of today’s Christmas lights and shoving me back toward the way I felt when grief was raw:

Mom's Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Mom’s Christmas Angel (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

  • Glimpsing maroon-and-red hanging from a store display and thinking — just for a second — Ooh, I think he’d like those colors — before I remembered it’s been seven Christmases since I got him a new shirt …
  • Looking up from the yogurt aisle at Walmart to see one of the three paramedics who came to our house the night my husband died … I backed up, turned away, fled to another aisle, and doubled over in the holding-a-shopping-cart equivalent of putting my head between my knees … (My brain knew I was okay, that it was in the past, but my body didn’t. I shook and trembled on and off for hours after, and had to talk myself into sleeping that night for fear of nightmares returning — as they sometimes do.)
  • Placing the star atop the tree and flashing back to my husband lifting our daughters over his head when they were small so they could set the star or an angel at the top …
  • Setting the felt angel my mother made decades ago into the Christmas tree branches and missing her all over again …
  • Realizing with gratitude that my wonderful son-in-law brings our holiday household back to five members … and wishing my husband could be here to get to know and love him too …
  • Relishing the new Star Wars movie with my firstborn daughter beside me and recognizing my hand reached for his at my other side, darn it

For the most part, in day-to-day life, I’ve learned. I’ve grown. I’ve adjusted to living without him at my side. As I’ve shared above, sometimes it “still” hurts, but not as sharply as in the traumatic first and second years after his death.

Much felt hazy in widowed fog back then. Yet I remember the numerous people who attempted to console and comfort me during those difficult, raw years — especially during the holidays. I appreciated them for speaking and reaching out — for not ignoring me — even when some of their efforts were less comforting.

  • Some told me not to cry, that he wouldn’t want me (or our kids) to be sad. I couldn’t help thinking, would he want me to be happy he’s not here? 
  • Others said in time I’d “get used to” living without him (and several years later I have), but that didn’t help me feel better then — it made it worse; it felt like they wanted me to forget about him by discounting the painful grief that was (is) interwoven with my love for him.
  • A few admonished me to “keep it together” for my kids’ sakes. “Don’t let them see you cry,” they said. “You’ll spoil their Christmas and make them afraid to go back to school” (my older daughters attended college out of state during those first few years). But my kids and I were still learning our way through grieving, and suppressing grief is far more harmful than expressing it. I wasn’t crying every minute of every day (though it sometimes felt almost that much), but I didn’t benefit when others told me to hide my tears.

I also remember the many kind, supportive words and gestures that lightened my emotional (and physical) burdens while acknowledging my bereavement during those earliest grief-filled holiday seasons.

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “You’re in my prayers.”
  • “I know you’re grieving her during this season.”
  • “I know it’s not the same without him.”
  • “Would you like to talk about him? About his favorite parts of Christmas?” (Sometimes I did want to talk about it. Sometimes I didn’t. But it felt like I mattered whenever they asked.)
  • One woman called to ask what kind of cookies my youngest daughter liked. A few hours later, she texted to say she was on her way to drop off a plateful.
  • Unexpected gift cards (and cash) helped offset expenses and made me feel less alone in providing for my family’s needs.
  • Cards, letters, emails, and texts offered tangible, visual evidence of others’ awareness.
  • Phone calls offered the same, even when I let it go to voicemail to listen later. (Sometimes I could not summon the emotional effort to answer or reply, but I did appreciate them.)
  • Invitations to join others in holiday gatherings proved I hadn’t been forgotten. Even though I couldn’t muster the strength or will to accept them (and I may not have even responded to some of them, I’m sorry to say now), it meant a lot to be asked.
  • A few of the men from our congregation — my husband’s church brothers — stopped by with a Christmas tree a couple of months after he died, when I’d all but forgotten about readying myself, let alone my house, for the holidays.*

Think back over your year. Did any of your friends lose loved ones? If so, please reach out to them. The holidays can be especially lonely and difficult while mourning. It’s not too late — it’s never too late — to say, “I’m thinking of you” — unless you never say it at all.

Wishing you and yours moments of peace and joy in your holidays. If’ you’re mourning this season, I hope those around you will reach out and show you they care. 


This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church. The “bushes” behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (The poor lighting reflects my scattered state of mind at the time.) Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

*The day our church brothers brought the Christmas tree, they did more than that. They opened their eyes and looked around as they hefted the pine out of a pickup truck and into the house. While setting it up in the stand, they asked, “Sister Bruce, do you have anyone helping you out with your yard?” (By what they’d seen, the answer was obvious, but to their credit they asked anyway.) To read about the amazing service they gave my family soon after, please see Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking.


Beware of “Happy Halloween” and Other Hazardous Good Wishes

I could scarcely hear the words “happy Halloween,” let alone say them a month after my husband’s death. It felt as if plastic front yard gravestones mocked my recent cemetery experiences. Fake coffin lids lifted by glow-in-the-dark skeletal hands called to mind the most heart-wrenching purchases I’d ever made. And with death on my mind as it uprooted my life, I couldn’t muster even an artistic appreciation for well-applied “rotting corpse” or zombie makeups.

These gruesome decorations weren’t to blame for my aversion to the cheery greeting (though they certainly didn’t help).

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you're thinking of them, but consider skipping the "Happy Halloween" greeting.

Take your grieving friends some favorite candy (or a healthier treat) to show you’re thinking of them, but consider skipping the “happy Halloween” greeting.

How could it be a “happy Halloween” without my husband? He’d doted on our kids’ annual costuming, and we’d worn more-or-less matching tacky jack-o-lantern shirts most of our 24 years together.

Facing that first quasi-holiday after he died forced me to realize our annual  family traditions would never be the same. In that first year, I wondered whether any such celebrations could ever be “happy” again.

I braced myself against each turn of the calendar. We muddled our way through that first year, altering some traditions, discarding others, and auditioning new activities for tradition-worthiness. Some were outright flops. Others became instant new favorites.

Month by month, my daughters and I found new joys to anticipate.

Along the way to finding those new joys, during that difficult year of “firsts” I appreciated the thoughtful good wishes which acknowledged awareness of our changed circumstances.

Some helpful salutations included:

  • “May you be blessed this Thanksgiving. We’re thinking of you.”
  • “We hope your Christmas will be filled with fond memories.”
  • “May the New Year bring you hope and healing.”
  • “I’m guessing this will be a tough Valentine’s Day. Hang in there.”
  • “Thinking of you with love this Easter season.”
  • “I know you’ll miss your husband this Father’s Day.”
  • “Treat yourself with kindness on your birthday.”
  • “I’ll be thinking of you on your 25th anniversary” (my first as a widow).

As I worked through the raw pain of that first year’s grief and headed into the next, I became better able to handle more trite salutations like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.”

(I’m still not fond of “happy Halloween,” though, no matter how cute the trick or treaters.)