8 Things You Should Know about Your First Christmas After a Loss

“Merry Christmas!”  “Happy New Year!” 

Wherever you turn at this time of year, you encounter words of good cheer and reminders to celebrate the joy of the Christmas season.  But those who are facing the first Christmas season following the loss of someone special in their lives may be wondering how they are going to simply survive the holidays, let alone find joy in them. 

So we asked Kelli, Deb, Mary, Shari, Michelle, & Beth -- who all have experienced first holidays following a loss -- what advice they would give to those facing their own first Christmas. 

In their own words …

#1:  Make time to grieve. 

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Kelli lost her 16-year old son Riley following a boating accident in the summer of 2016 

"Finding time to remember and grieve is important, but tough to do as well, because finding that balance between moving on with life and also grieving is really hard.  The Christmas after Riley died, we made time to grieve and that was a really important thing for us.   With my family I had a box with the verse “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above” on it, and on the tag wrote “From God to Us.”  Everyone at Christmas – including extended family & cousins -- had to write a memory of Riley that we put in that box.  We also put a book together with all the grandkids (who were ages 8 – 14 or so) with pictures and memories of Riley, and I bawled through all of it.  It was really a time to grieve, and also a time to celebrate his life.  We made space for that."

That first holiday season really was about figuring where everyone was at and what they needed to get through it, and just trying to do what we could each day to help everyone do that.  My daughter didn’t want to talk about it.  My son was struggling. Everyone handles loss differently, but it really was helpful to intentionally stop and sit together and talk about Riley.  We would do that, and then we would turn our attention to going on with our other holiday plans too,"says Kelli.

#2:  It's okay to set some traditions aside


Beth lost her dad 9 years ago, and lost her mom last November too

"Last year I didn’t even want to put up a tree.  I hung some lights outside, and I didn’t want to do anything else.  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I just did what I wanted to do and felt I could manage.  And that was right for me," says Beth.


Shari lost her husband, Brad, and the father of her two young children when he had a heart attack while hunting last fall

"Some traditions brought back painful memories, so we changed them.  We celebrated Christmas in a different house that we’d always gathered at.   I don’t know if I even got Christmas decorations out; I can’t remember.  My birthday is January 1st, so New Years Eve was always a big deal for us and we hosted a party each year.  Last year I couldn’t do that, so we went somewhere else," recalls Shari.

#3  Gifts may take on new meaning


Mary's father passed away in September of 2016 at the age of 90


"It’s hard when you have all these years of Christmas shopping, and then suddenly not having that certain someone to shop for or give a gift to.  So we made a decision to give a gift using the money that we’d have spent on our parents, in their names, to St. John’s instead, because they were heavily involved with this organization and it meant a lot to them.  It’s not the same as purchasing a gift for my mom or dad and watching them open it, but this was a way to still feel like I was including them in my gift shopping and giving and in a way that honors them," said Mary.


Shari added, "We got a puppy and I told my kids about it at Christmas.  We aren’t dog people, but I think our dog Bingo is from God.  It was something I couldn't believe I did but we really needed this dog in our lives. "    

#4  Expect unexpected emotions


Deb's father passed away last summer after a brief battle with cancer.   

"I spent the first Christmas after my dad died focused on helping my mom do whatever it took to get through Christmas, and that really changed from day to day. One day she wanted stockings up, but then she wanted them down, and then up again on Christmas morning.   We didn’t know whether she’d want to host Christmasor whether it would be at my house for the first time, so I was just ready to host and I let her decide what was best for her."

Beth further noted that, "It can just hit you at times when you’re not expecting it to.  You’re in the middle of a song and some words in the middle of one verse just hit you and you can’t sing it, and then you’re fine again.  It’s just the way it works.  You’re not expecting it and then it happens. "

#5 Give yourself a pass


Deb said, "I gave myself a pass that entire first Christmas season, and really just gave myself permission to be kind to myself and to do what I needed to do to just get through.  I didn’t put pressure on myself  to go to events;  I needed to relieve pressure on myself to make sure everyone else was happy.  I actually spent Christmas Eve cleaning my house – and I was thrilled and it made me happy.  I had a glass of wine and a clean house.  My mom and sister helped me clean for awhile and we cleaned closets and folded sheets and cleaned out cabinets and threw things away.    I had given myself permission to do what I needed to do, and it was good self-care to spent Christmas Eve like this.  


#6  Accept help

Kelli noted, "People were so good to us and each week we had people sending us cards or bringing us gifts.  Someone came and put up Christmas lights.  They were helping us, but I was helping them grieve too by allowing them to do something that felt like helping to them.  It was a blessing to have people coming each week.   It helped me be very busy.  They helped without asking me what I needed – they just did it and didn’t make me think about what I might need. 


#7 Continue traditions that bring comfort


Michelle's dad passed away last September

"My mother had a box of ornaments that she had for all of us girls.  Every year when we put ornaments on our tree we have those ornaments from our mom.  We have found comfort in continuing traditions that were important to my parents like going to Catholic services.  It was important to them, and we’ve continued that with our kids too.

We also have a special pan that we cook the holiday turkey in.  It’s huge and must weigh 25 pounds!  It’s been passed down through the generations and after my mom got sick she passed it down to me.  I’d never cooked a turkey before but it was up to me to keep this tradition going," said Michelle. 

#8  It's ok to find joy in remembering

Mary says, "We very consciously set aside time to talk about my parents at Christmas.  It’s been so helpful to all of us.  You want to make sure that they’re not forgotten but we also want to seek joy in continuing our lives.  Talking about them out loud helps us find joy in our memories of them and we include this time in our Christmas dinner, and we agreed that we would set aside time to do this, and then continue on with our celebration." 

Balancing grieving with living and remembering with celebrating during the holidays looks different for everyone, they all agreed.  

Subscribe to our blog to get the next post in this series about starting new holiday traditions that honor the memories of loved ones.

What about you?  How did you manage your first Christmas?