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.