There are many people and families around the world celebrating their first holiday season following the death of a loved one. I hesitate to use the word “celebrate” because I know that it doesn’t feel like much of a celebration when someone important isn’t there.


I remember that first holiday season without my sister (and without my maternal grandmother, who died just seven months after Denise) as a time of confusion. All our family traditions were thrown out the window that year. Without my grandmother, the extended family wouldn’t gather as we had my entire life. Without Denise, what was there to celebrate? It would take us several years to build new holiday traditions, and those eventually would morph and change as well.


While my dad’s death in 2006 didn’t impact our traditions so much, I felt as if more of my childhood had been stolen from me. When I think of Christmas, I think of certain cookies only my Dad would buy me, cookies only available this time of year. I think of the vinyl Christmas records that we would play on the stereo in the dining room. And I remember the cold, snowy nights when we went to the early Christmas Eve Mass. Oh, yes, and there's the fact that we never left milk for Santa Claus – Dad was a beer drinker so Santa usually got a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon instead.


It’s difficult, in the midst of the pain of losing someone who meant so much to us, to remember what makes us laugh. And in that pain, family members are often in different spaces of grief. In this video, I discuss some ways for families to cope with the holidays:



When I was unpacking in my new home over the past few weeks, I discovered a crayon drawing I had made in 1992, the Christmas before Denise died. Why the crayons were out I don’t know, but I vaguely remember us sitting around the kitchen table after the extended family had left, and laughing as I sketched six stick figures next to a palm tree, the plan for our next Christmas: “Christmas ’93 with the Linns in Hawaii.” The reality of the Christmas of ’93 couldn't have been farther from the smiling stick figure faces basking in the island sunshine since Denise had died earlier that year.


But what I see in that picture now is the hope I had that night. The same hope that keeps me believing that, despite the pain we endure when we continue forward with the holidays without our loved ones, we have the memories of holidays past and the hope for holidays ahead.


Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at

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Comment by Michelle Rusk (Linn-Gust) on December 2, 2012 at 11:52am

It may not seem this way right now but you are so lucky to have had such love in your life. Many people never have that. And he chose you! Ask him to send you signs that he is around. He is with you and wants you to be happy. You will get there.

Comment by debby porta on December 1, 2012 at 2:15pm

Hi Michelle, Thank you for your advice. I have 2 grown boys, ages 30 & 33 & they are so happy that I found this site. They want me to go to see someone, but I am not ready to go. My husband was SO special, you can google his name  Vincent J. Porta  then go to his site that shows his story 3 years ago...Meet Vincent J Porta,emergency surgery! I am sure that I will need your help from time to time.    Debby

Comment by Michelle Rusk (Linn-Gust) on November 30, 2012 at 3:30pm

Don't do anything this holiday season if you don't want to! There is nothing wrong with that! And if anyone tells you differently, ignore them. You have to do what feels right for you right now (which probably feels like nothing). What I do know is that there is darkness after light. The crying is good- by giving yourself a chance to cry and feel, you're taking the journey. You might want to write him a letter and tell him what you're going through, then read it out loud and burn it. He will hear it and he will let you know he's nearby and he loves you. Allow him to show his presence to you and he will.

Comment by debby porta on November 30, 2012 at 3:14pm

Thanks Michelle, I just feel that I don't want to do anything related to the holidays. My husband recently found out that he was able to collect full benefits from social security.We were going to sit by the window with hot chocolate & watch the first snow fall. We were going to travel to Texas to see my family(who I have not seen in 2 years), we were going to get ready for my sons engagement. How can i DO THEESE THINGS NOW? I cry in the morning when I get up and I ache for him when I go to bed. He had 5 surgerys since April of this year, and he died going in the hospital for a rutine CAT scan. They said he asperated and could not breathe so his heart stopped for 20 minutes before they could get it going again. He had brain damage & had 3 tests to comfirm that there was no brain activity. I HAD to take him off the resperator on Halloween. How do I get over the fact he died after all that he went through? 

Comment by Michelle Rusk (Linn-Gust) on November 30, 2012 at 1:48pm

Debby, Of course it feels insurmountable. You two were so lucky to have an incredible marriage and life together. It will be a processing to where you feel him with you. It won't be the same but at some point, if you allow it, he will tell you he is with you. The grief is very fresh. Let it wash over you. Cry all you need to, write him letters, do what you need to do to process it. Grief is an active process and by taking part in it, you will allow yourself to take the journey and find out you are stronger than you ever could have imagined.

Comment by debby porta on November 29, 2012 at 4:26pm

My husband died 4 weeks ago at the age of 56. We were married 27 years, or as he said 27 glorious years, and his death was sudden. Hi heart stopped & he was brain dead & I had to take him off the respirator/ Now how do I live without this wonderful man?

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