The first holiday after the death of a parent or loved one is often the hardest one to celebrate, and it kicks off a year-long wave of fresh grief and memories for those who are left behind and struggling to make sense of their new normal. Christmas can be an especially tough holiday for many reasons.
When Karen Wilson lost her father, Ray Murphy, seven years ago in December, she knew she was going to miss him and all of the joy and traditions he brought into their family celebrations.
"Christmas was his holiday, and December was his month. He was jovial and funny, and he was a presence at Christmas. Everyone looked forward to being with him because he really got into it. I mean, he went way over the top and absolutely loved seeing joy in people's faces," says Karen. "At one point, he even converted the attic into a Christmas village, which was a sight to behold."
When her parents were living, Karen and her siblings did their own family Christmas in the morning and then went over to her parents' house for Christmas together. They all looked forward to having their family picture taken together, which predictably took forever because her dad would forget to set the timer or somebody blinked.
Two or three years before he passed away, her father wasn't able to do what he loved to do during the holidays anymore. It was difficult for Karen and her family to watch because his limitations depressed him, but they tried to make it festive for him. It wasn't long before they stopped going to their parents' house for Christmas.
"What I miss the most," Karen says, "He would call me two weeks before Christmas and say, 'Karem ( that was his nickname for me), it's time. We need to go shopping for your mom.' Just the two of us would go out to the mall. I would have to hold him back because he wanted to buy her everything. My job was to help him focus — we would spend several hours, and then go to lunch. I would take everything home with me and wrap it and then take it to him to put under the tree."
Another thing Karen loved about her father was the way he carried on with his grandchildren.
"He was always very secretive about what he was up to for the grandkids. They loved that about him. Everybody knew it would be some kind of mechanical contraption. While he did it for the kids, he was for sure the biggest kid about celebrating the holiday. Anybody who knew my dad knew that he loved his family and loved Jesus."
While Ray's family mourned him after he passed, seeing him in declining health for so long seemed to prepare them for his passing. It was almost as if they had already grieved over losing him while he was alive and in poor health.
"Mom died about 13 months after Dad," Karen says. "When they both were gone, my sister and brother and I felt like it was almost more emotional than when Dad died. You knew they were both gone. It felt like a huge void for all of us."
Christmas looks a lot different for Karen and her family now. Today, she and her family go to her brother's house in the afternoon and tell stories and share memories of their parents. Their kids remember and enjoy telling their own stories, too. They laugh and honor them through their memories, and they have a good time together.
If this is your first holiday without your loved one, here are some things to consider.
* Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve, and don't allow others to tell you how to grieve, because everyone experiences loss differently.
* Remember. Telling stories about your loved one can help you process, remember and honor them as you celebrate with others. Some people choose to place a special ornament on the tree in remembrance of their loved one. Others may display a holiday photo, or there may be a tradition they started that you wish to carry on.
* Ask for help if you need it, because grieving is just plain hard. It's not always possible to move forward in the way you'd like, and it may be helpful to draw others into your process who have walked the road before you and have managed their emotions in a healthy way. You might try a friend or family member, spiritual leader, professional counselor or grief support group.
Sometimes it is difficult to know when you aren't doing well. If people you know and trust encourage you to seek help, listen to them. When going through the grief process, there are periods when it is hard to see the forest for the trees because it is just overwhelming to deal with all that is on your plate.
During the holidays, you might be tempted to try and fill all of your moments to keep you busy and distracted. That works for some people. While it isn't a bad thing to have some celebrations to look forward to, be sure to give yourself room to breathe, but not so much time that you are consumed by your loss.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.