The First Holiday Without a Loved One

For the bereaved, getting through the holidays means figuring out how—and whether—to celebrate as in years past.

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After Maryanne Pope’s husband, John, died in September 2000, the first Christmas without him, just a few months later, was a struggle. She used to cherish decorating a Christmas tree in her Calgary, Canada, home, but that year, there was no joy to be found.

“Putting up a tree didn’t feel right to me. There was absolutely nothing to celebrate,” says Pope, the author of A Widow’s Awakening. “Plus, I may have had the intuitive wisdom to know that unpacking all the familiar decorations would be a disaster.” She tried again the next year, but “every ornament was like unpacking a land mine,” she says. “The memories were extremely painful.”

Instead, she tried something new.

“I put up a string of white lights on the hearth of our fireplace, where there were some photographs of John,” she says. “I did Christmas very differently.”

As the years went by, Christmas got a little easier to bear, and she began to love the season again, especially the lights she would always put up in honor of her husband. “I finally began to realize that I was going to have to toss the traditions that were causing me even more anguish,” she says. “I had to learn how to set boundaries so that I could celebrate the Christmas season the way I wanted to.”

Behind all the presents and the abundance of food and drinks, the holidays are fundamentally about spending time with family and friends. But after the death of a loved one, a season of indulgent celebration can feel perverse to the bereaved. While the logistics of holiday travel, meals, and gifts can be tricky for just about anyone to navigate, grieving people may also grapple with an array of unfamiliar emotions and unenviable practical considerations, whether it’s the anxiety of gathering in a different place, whether to decorate the home as in previous years, or, simply, how to get through it all without their loved one around. The holidays are never an easy time for those who are in mourning, but they can also provide a clarifying opportunity to create a new host of routines, rituals, and behaviors for a new stage in life.

For those who are facing the first holiday season without a loved one, one of the biggest challenges is just wading through the deluge of raw grief.

Catherine, a 45-year-old woman in the Kansas City area who asked to be identified by only her first name to speak openly about her grief, told me she lost her mother two years ago, four days after Christmas. In the past, Christmas in her household had been a festive time of decorating, baking, and soaking up the atmosphere of her mother’s favorite holiday.

“Last year, I didn't do any of those things. I asked not to exchange gifts and just did the best I could to get through Christmas,” she says. “I was so lost in the first year that I couldn’t conceive of following family traditions. I was struggling to merely make it to work.”

That sense of holiday-season malaise is echoed by Rachel Gebler Greenberg of Hermosa Beach, California, who lost her husband, Glenn, in March 2013. She remembers lying low during the first few holidays. With family scattered all over the country, the prospect of traveling became especially difficult—one time, she arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and broke down at baggage claim, realizing that Glenn wouldn’t be there to greet her.

To avoid spending every waking moment thinking about their loss, some people I spoke with mentioned trying to stay busy in the weeks and months leading up to the holidays. Corina Saucedo, a 32-year-old nurse from Evergreen Park, Illinois, lost her mother in February.  Saucedo says she’s scheduled herself to work overtime because that’s the only way for her to stay distracted. “My family knows I love my job, but they do worry I am overworked,” she told me. “I have not given myself time to grieve.”

Julie Hazelwanter, 54, from Airdrie, Canada, lost her son, William, in October. She’s preoccupying herself by putting all her energy into preparing for two separate Christmas gatherings that she had planned before her son’s death. “It’s definitely a bigger workload this year,” she says. “It keeps my mind off of everything, I guess.”

Still, in the face of all that pain in a season when seemingly everyone else is holly jolly, experts told me that some proven strategies can help people move forward from the sadness, irrespective of how fresh the feelings are. The impulse to clam up about the deceased at a family dinner isn’t necessarily the best move; the Grief Recovery Institute has found that the biggest need for people in mourning is to “talk about what happened and my relationship with the person who died.”

Mari Itzkowitz, a clinical therapist at the Center for Loss and Renewal in Alexandria, Virginia, says that talking about loved ones is key. “Light a candle, say the names, bring the people into the room,” Itzkowitz told me. “You’re the one to bring it in, you’re the one to bring it up, which then gives people permission to celebrate the joy.” In other words, “you’re allowed to feel really bad.”

Another key to working through grief, Itzkowitz says, is figuring out new rituals and traditions. Say Grandma always hosted a holiday meal at her house—how should a family handle planning the first year without her?

“It’s about everybody having a conversation together and saying, ‘Okay, this sucks. We can’t do it this way. What is the new tradition we would like to create for our family moving forward?” Itzkowitz says.

Indeed, many of the grieving people I talked with mentioned recalibrating the holiday season with new routines and traditions, whether it’s minor tweaks or major changes.

Hazelwanter told me that she plans to place an ornament with William’s name on it on her Christmas tree. “I know we’ll talk about Willie and have memories of him,” she says. “As long as everybody’s comfortable talking about him, I think that’s pretty much all we would do—include him in conversation.”

Gebler Greenberg told me that because her husband was Jewish, she has started to incorporate some of his rituals into the holidays, like teaching her grandchildren about Hanukkah and bringing them gelt. Honoring him with new traditions, she says, “makes it better.”

Saucedo told me that during the holidays, her mother would help manage her father, who struggles with alcohol abuse. Now that she’s gone, Saucedo has taken on that responsibility herself.  “She loved and respected my dad despite his drinking, drug use, and lack of parental support,”  Saucedo says. “We try not to upset each other—that’s what my mom would have wanted.”

Of course, new routines and traditions aren’t some elixir for the pain of a loved one’s death. And some people aren’t quite ready to lose their cherished traditions. As Catherine tells me, “I can see a possibility of new ways to celebrate in the future, but I’m not there yet.” Still, as Itzkowitz says, breaking the “normal” habits of the holidays can be an illuminating experience for those in mourning.

Maryanne Pope says she knows her late husband would be glad she continues their tradition of kicking off the holiday season by watching their all-time favorite movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

“The first time I watched it after his death was pretty difficult. But I still laughed at the funny scenes,” she says. “And now, after all these years, every time I watch it, I always take away something different. And I always laugh.”