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 www.michellelinngust.com.