Delightful surprises could lurk behind the anticipated ‘Bah Humbug’ of a new widow’s Christmas



For many recent widows and widowers, the idea of celebrating their first Christmas without their spouse opens a window of dread akin to being force-fed a fruitcake.

As unique individuals, we have different ways of dealing with the grief of finding ourselves alone during a holiday dedicated to family celebrations and long-held rituals and traditions. Some of us may refuse to do any holiday decorating, including any kind of Christmas tree. We may hole up in our widow’s quarters and shut out the world, wallowing in self-pity. Totally understandable.

My high school friend Don, a widower for many years now, admits he hated the idea of Christmas, since he had spent every holiday with his beloved Mary since age 17. He felt like his life was over when the holidays rolled around after her November 1 death. All his memories were wrapped up in her and he just knew he could never top the life he had once lived.

He knows now he was wrong. His daughter would not listen to his protests that he just wanted to be left alone for Christmas. He spent the holidays with her and his son-in-law’s extended family, including his Jewish and Lutheran parents. It was such a different celebration, it temporarily took his mind away from his sorrow. Each holiday since has been a little easier, even while he never forgets to honor his late wife’s memory.

For another high school friend, Donna, doing something different over the holidays helped her get through that first Christmas without her husband. “Trying to make everything the same brings up too many memories.” She reports that instead of the big family dinner, her family had a chili cook off and hit the Dollar Store for silly gifts as prizes for games. She also made a special remembrance tree ornament for herself and each of the adult kids.

“Also remember that there will be times when your spouse’s death is going to hit like a ton of bricks,” she advises, adding the examples of hearing a certain song, seeing a Christmas movie, a gift, anything. “It’s okay to have some mini-breakdowns,” she concludes.

For myself, this first holiday without my husband is punctuated with distractions. I am having the kitchen re-decorated and trying hard not to get sheetrock dust and glue anywhere near the ingredients for holiday confections that I insist on making, just like I have every year since I was old enough to follow my own mother’s example. I will never forget her making beautiful Swedish tea rings decorated with frosting and green and red maraschino cherries to give as gifts to friends and neighbors . . . (and she was German, not Swedish, but they were works of art that I drooled over).

This first year I have tried to follow the admonitions of my church to make Advent a mini-Lent through almsgiving. I went through the massive and unnecessary multitudes of our holiday decorations and gave many of them to a local nursing home. I will be going to that same nursing home on Christmas Day to have dinner with my husband’s stepmother, even though she will not remember the celebration a few minutes after I leave.

On Christmas Eve, the time I dread the most, I will be singing with a choir at two services, then having a few of the members of the group to my house for a buffet. One of them is a man who just lost his wife after a nine-year battle with cancer and is himself suffering from Parkinson’s, and the man moved this week into an assisted living facility.

I predict, that with this activity, I will fly through the holidays relatively unscathed and land in the doldrums of January just in time for a meltdown. But why borrow trouble, right? If my friends and acquaintances can get through a tough time, I certainly can too.


For now, as the days dwindle in the lead-up to a major annual event, surprises and delights are surely in store. New memories will be made, especially with a 15-month-old grandson whose wonder at twinkle lights and a fat bearded man in red can be soaked up vicariously and eagerly, along with some cuddles and kisses. A new vulnerability will lead me to do things like I did this morning and be moved to tears by an article in the newspaper about slave labor in Thailand that produces much of the shrimp we eat.

The rawness of emotion that I now wear on my sleeve like a Girl Scout badge may allow me to feel and experience precisely what I need in a season dedicated to remembering the birth of One who will dry our tears and lead us to a reunion with all our loved ones.

The Widow Journal: Helpful Tips for Surviving the Death of a Spouse

Planting living things of beauty can provide soul-cleansing activity as well as being a fitting memorial to a deceased loved one.

Planting living things of beauty can provide soul-cleansing activity as well as being a fitting memorial to a deceased loved one.

Monday marked four weeks since my husband died in a local hospital. His death finally ended the suffering brought on by multi-system ailments–one of those cases where an exit brings a kind of blessed relief, calling to mind the trite saying, “Well, at least he’s not suffering any more.”

Suffering is for survivors. And so is cleaning up, sorting out, legal wrangling, bill paying and spending sleepless nights adjusting to a quietly echoing vacuum where a spouse once resided.

There is no right way to grieve and no one does it the same way, with the same circumstances. So there are no rules or roadmaps, but for those who travel that road or will in the near future, here is a list of what is proving helpful for this new widow.

  1. Busy is best, the more physical the better. Once the flurry of funeral activity ends, it can be soul-cleansing to tackle a project you may have put off when you were in a caretaking and supportive role. For me, it was planting three hydrangea bushes in my back yard and finally tackling the weedy expanse that bordered my driveway. Maybe it’s just me, being a Kansas country girl from birth, but digging in the dirt and watching things grow can be so satisfying and therapeutic. And even if you don’t have a green thumb, you might find solace by just visiting a greenhouse and smelling the plants and soil, feasting your eyes on colors and textures and using your nose to take in the living, thriving things. It could take your mind off of the opposite.
  1. Take care of yourself. We hear this admonition all the time as widows and widowers, but it is important, since it is all too easy for the grief to lead to despair and illness. The next advice does not apply to the male griever, but there is surely an equivalent activity to treating yourself to a trip to a hair salon or nail salon. I am eternally grateful for the trend in modern salons to massage your scalp during a shampoo and to massage your arms and legs during a mani-pedicure. So grateful, in fact, that I plan to make these treats a regular regimen, as long as the bank account will allow. Which brings me to a third tip, dealing with finances.
  1. Learn to deal with the scary arena of money. If you are one of those unlucky survivors whose spouse always handled financial transactions, enlist the help of a trusted advisor to help you navigate the treacherous waters of changing bank accounts, applying for survivor benefits through Social Security, changing beneficiaries and title on death clauses, filing life insurance claims, etc.

This area can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, but getting organized and developing a degree of expertise is a must. Just breathe deeply, tell yourself you can do it, and dive in. The water is cold at first, but you’ll get used to it.

  1. Don’t panic, don’t rush to decisions. Give yourself time to adjust to your new circumstances. You don’t have to put your house on the market, sell a vehicle or make a rash decision that you could live to regret. Again, breathe deeply, let your rational self come to the forefront, and your many years of life experience will eventually prevail. One of my first thoughts was to trade my two vehicles for one to lower my car payment. Wisdom (and my wise son) said to wait and perhaps use life insurance funds to eliminate any car payments, especially since my monthly income is suddenly dramatically reduced by the lack of a second Social Security check.
  1. Tap into your spirituality. This is the most important time in your life to learn to put your trust in God. Answers come in prayers, comfort comes in dreams and healing can ensue from attending church services. Yes, you may be brought to tears like I was when the responsorial hymn the day after my spouse’s funeral was from Psalm 23, his favorite. But tears are another soul cleanser and don’t be embarrassed by them.

One of the few benefits of being alone, for me, is that I now pray aloud in the mornings, and sometimes even sing. There is no one but my pets and God to hear me and nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, that may be how we are supposed to communicate with Him.

  1. Create some kind of personal memorial to your deceased loved one. For me, this is taking the form of using my mate’s 159 ties to make a colorful quilt top. The other clothing that filled three closets (he would have been a good candidate for an episode of Hoarders-Clothing Version) is going to a local charity that will find good uses for 250 dress shirts in their original packaging. That, to my way of thinking, is a great recycling memorial. The living memorial is in the back yard hydrangeas.
  1. Don’t forget to laugh. I have spent a lifetime looking for the humor in everyday situations. My late husband didn’t always appreciate being made the public subject of laughter in my newspaper column, but it gave him an identity that our readers loved . . . made him more human and loveable.

I had to laugh at myself yesterday as I put sealer/stain on half the deck. This was a must-do project and I made a sloppy mess of it. I am sure my spouse was laughing at me from the Other Side while I was learning to handle a paint roller. He was a perfectionist in the painting department and would never have allowed me to tackle such a project.

I also find much humor in grocery shopping nowadays. Things like single serve Asian dishes and personal pan pizzas find their way into the basket as I try to get out of the habits of stocking up for a famine–habits inherited from depression-era parents–those same parents who told us to clean our plates because there are starving children in China.

  1. Don’t rely on Facebook and fiction. Being newly alone is not fun. Nights and weekends are close to terrifying. Taking regular and early doses of Melatonin are now a part of my nightly regimen, just so I can finally fall asleep. And I have learned to stop my use of electronic devices early in the evening and switch to a book in print while trying to get into a drowsy state. This being said, I know that relying on Facebook and fiction for human interaction is not healthy. I have had to force myself to get out and about, making my car head to the local YMCA for an arthritis swim class three times a week, reaching out to family members on the phone and quickly accepting dinner or lunch invitations from dear friends.

Now, thanks to things like setting up a trust, scheduling a dental visit and dreaming up places to go and visit, my calendar is filling up. And the daily kisses I get from my two dogs . . . the comfort that comes from a cat that curls himself around my legs and hugs me with his tail . . .  the squeals of laughter and the joy that exude from my precious grandson . . . all of this eases the pain of loss and tells me I still have a zest for life and so much to look forward to.