Not So Happy Holidays

How I feel at the thought of putting up our large Christmas tree.

How I feel at the thought of putting up our large Christmas tree.

Once again the holidays are upon us. Here in the States, Thanksgiving is already behind us and Christmas is rapidly approaching. The holidays are an emotional roller coaster at the best of times, even more so for anyone who is grieving.

Grief has many causes, the first that comes to mind for most of us is the loss of a loved one. It can also be the result of many other life changes such as failing health, the loss of a job, moving, divorce, even the death or illness of a much loved pet. All of the firsts after a life-change event are difficult – and not just Christmas. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, and other days with no special names attached come with their own level of pain and adjustment.

But, there is something about Thanksgiving and Christmas that just seems to make everything worse. Maybe it’s the fact that the focus on family and togetherness does nothing except highlight the fact that someone, maybe even more than one someone, is missing from our festivities. The world is filled with bright lights, and excitement and yet sometimes we are on the outside looking in wondering what is wrong with us. Instead of “decking the halls” we want to run and hide and cry.

There are two important things to remember. First, there are no rules to grieving and whatever you are feeling is okay. Second, you can go from fine to sobbing with no real warning and that’s okay too. I am the perfect example of this. I began this post last week and I was in a much different place emotionally at that time. This is my first Christmas without either of my parents. (My daddy passed away last year, and my mama died this year.) Last week I was surprised at how well I seemed to be dealing with the holidays. I knew it would catch up with me at some point and it did – yesterday. My husband and I were getting out our Christmas decorations and I had Christmas music playing in the background. It wasn’t long before I felt like I had a big, achy hole in my chest. My husband held me as I cried. Plain and simple, I miss my parents.

My husband is dealing with his own holiday grief. His father died on Christmas day, 1994. His mother died November 7th of this year. Christmas always brings up memories of his dad and now his mom is gone too. He has been having a hard time today. Fortunately, we have each other and we will help each other through the hard times.

Grieving is kind of like marriage and parenthood – it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Over the years, we’ve stumbled across a few things that helped us. I’m sharing them now in the hopes that maybe they can help you too.

My father-in-law’s death would have been devastating at any time but Christmas Day? That took things to a whole new level. At the time of his death our sons were young which actually helped. It would have been easy to allow a time of celebration to become a time of mourning but we were determined to keep Christmas normal for our sons and we did. Every year we filled stockings and had visits from Santa Clause and did all of the things we did before death insinuated itself in our lives. In a classic case of fake it til you make it, pretending that everything was okay meant that gradually, it was.

Last year had a new lesson in store for me. My first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my daddy were hard. It didn’t help that daddy’s birthday was also in November. However, in the midst of my grief, I stumbled across something that made things easier: in the middle of a season all about tradition, it’s okay to change things up. We’ve always had the standard seven foot (artificial) Christmas tree and the whole family gathered to decorate it. Last year, I just couldn’t and told my husband so. He thought that after so much sadness it would be good to try to get things back to “normal.” Well, what had always been normal no longer existed and I just didn’t have it in me to pretend. Even though my hubby missed the big tree he supported me in my decision to not use it. Instead, we found a local Boy Scout troop selling Christmas trees made from wooden pallets. It was perfect. Not a single ornament was unboxed and it brought me great peace. And you know what? Much like the Grinch, not having a tree didn’t stop Christmas from coming. It came, and it was good. Yes, there were times of sadness but breaking with tradition made it easier.

Our 2016 Christmas tree. Cat shown for size. (Not)

Our 2016 Christmas tree. Cat shown for size. (Not)

I would have been perfectly content to have continued using the pallet tree indefinitely but the rest of my family missed the big tree so much that I promised them that we would have a “normal” tree this year. Although, I did tell my hubby that I didn’t want to use the big tree again but that I would be willing to put up a smaller one. Little did I know when making that statement that life was going to throw two more deaths at us. Now, none of these deaths were total surprises – both of my parents and my mother-in-law were ninety years old and in failing health. But still, no matter how much warning you do or don’t have, when the end comes, it’s hard.

Just last week I told my husband that I thought one of the reasons the holidays seemed easier than expected was because we moved this year and are living in a different house with no memories of our parents associated with it. I was even okay when I put up the new decorations purchased this year. It wasn’t until we started getting out the “old” decorations that my emotions started getting the best of me. Seriously. I can’t explain why but when my hubby was assembling the Christmas tree, I was so stressed I could hardly breathe. By the next day, I could look at the tree without hyperventilating but I still wasn’t enthused about decorating it. (As for having a smaller tree, I hadn’t been able to find one anywhere. I do have the table top fiber optic tree that my daddy had but my heart isn’t ready to use it yet. I don’t know if it ever will be.)

When our kids came over for a belated Thanksgiving dinner, the plan was to decorate the tree after the meal. However, they weren’t anymore enthused by the idea than I was and once again – that’s okay. They are older with families of their own so, it’s time for that tradition to change. This year the big tree is going back in the box; it will be replaced by the small four foot tree that I finally found. The smaller tree will be decorated simply with a few special ornaments and honestly – I can’t wait. I’m tired of stressing out over putting the garland on the tree “just so” only to have to re-do it every day because the cats “rearranged” it. I am more than ready to simplify.

And that, my friends is the next lesson that I have learned from grieving. It’s okay to not do things the way you have always done them. And you know what? You don’t even have to give a reason. But, if, like me, you feel you must a simple “I just can’t” should suffice.

Our first season of grieving we dealt with by sticking to traditions, the second and now third seasons, we have dealt with by changing things up. Neither decision was“better” than the other, but each one was what we needed at that time.

Don’t have it in you to bake the elaborate dish everyone is expecting you to bring to the office potluck? Don’t. Stop by the grocery store and pick up something premade. Not up to doing that? That’s okay too. People may be disappointed but they’ll survive. You take care of you.

Do you have any tips for getting through the holidays? If so, I’d love to hear them, just put them in the Comments so others can see them as well.

If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. I’m no counselor but I have tissues, chocolate, and a shoulder to cry on if needed. You can always reach me by leaving a comment or by emailing me at We can get through this season together.


  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    You guys have had such a difficult year. So sorry for all your losses. I think you’re spot on when you say we don’t have to do things just because we always have. Your “I just can’t” reasoning is perfectly sound. And sometimes, this is exactly how new traditions get started. Something fresh–not meant to erase the memories we have but rather to help us ease into new ones.

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