Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Facing Your First Christmas Alone

December 20, 2004

The holidays are special occasions, right? It depends on who you are. Add one tragic event - the death of a loved one during the year - and the days expected to be the best become the worst. The holiday season is a painful reminder of the depth of the loss and an occasion for grief. The world has turned upside down.

What is it like to go through a first Christmas alone without a husband? Here are some feelings shared by young widows on what holiday and other notable anniversaries can be like following their loss.

On getting through the holidays. "My friends mean everything to me. They rally around me. They came and stayed with me during the anniversary of his death. I wouldn’t have made it without them."

"A friend and I went out to eat in his memory."

"The pain in anticipation of his birthday, our wedding anniversary, the death anniversary and the Christmas holidays was worse than it actually turned out to be."

"I had a friend who paid attention to the dates. She didn’t even know him. She’d call or come down to visit every time."

"I don’t want Christmas to come. Every day seems like eternity."

"I want to start new traditions."

"It is important we do some of the same things we’ve done every Christmas. We (mother and child) remember him and some of the things we did together."

"The holidays are coming. I don’t know what to do - visit the in-laws, her parents, or stay at home."

On helpful friends. "My relationship with couples is different now. It is hard for them. I only see the women and children. The men don’t talk to me. They don’t know what to say."

"My friend’s husband gets on the phone and we talk for a half an hour. I like hearing a man’s point of view."

"When men come over, I give them something to do. That is their way of helping."

"My friends still send cards and little gifts for the children."

"I need to share things about the children with someone special. Their Dad isn’t there to see this."

On positive relationships with parents and in-laws. "My in-laws call once or twice a week. We have a close relationship."

"My in-laws are very supportive. They are right there if I ask them."

"They are my children’s grandparents. The kids like it when they come."

"My parents loved him too. Sometimes they come and stand there and cry. Once they’ve done that, they are able to have a good time playing cards and enjoying themselves."

On negative experiences with parents and in-laws. "I couldn’t say, ‘Mom, it is time for me to stay by myself.’ Finally, I did."

"My mother would always come, fall apart and say, ‘It is so sad to see the children without a father.’ It gets my daughter crying. It was hard to take. I think she was dealing with her own father’s abandonment when she was a child."

"My mother puts on constant pressure. She is constantly hovering over me. ‘Are you OK?’ I find myself backing away from her. The old parenting instincts kick in. It is like I am 16 and back home again."

"His family never calls. They are grieving in their own way."

"My in-laws don’t talk about it. It hurts them too much by saying it. We don’t talk about him. I know they remember it (a special day)."

"I am the one who hasn’t come over. It hurts too much."

"I did my part. I don’t see a lot of them (in-laws). They blame me for my husband’s accident. I never took care of her son in the way she wanted me to.

"It hurts them to see me go on with life. They think I’ve come too far, too fast. I put a brave front up around them. They don’t see me cry myself to sleep at night. They aren’t there on the first day of school. Why aren’t they there when I see a man and a woman shopping together? They aren’t there when I think of the things that will never be."

"They (in-laws) are stuck in their grief. I feel pressure to make it better for them. I can’t. I have a hard enough time with myself and my children’s grief."

"My in-laws couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to therapy instead of turning it over to God. That doesn’t help if you are angry with God."

"I want to stay home this Christmas. I don’t want to hurt them (in-laws). It is too emotionally draining to stay there. It is time to move on. How do I help them understand it is something we want to do on our own?"

On being there. Take time to remember the people in your life who have experienced a loss of a loved one during the year. Christmas is important, but so are other special days that trigger memories and grief. As one widow expressed it, "I got lots of support the first Christmas. On the second Christmas, it was ‘on your own.’"

Another widow shared what she needed. "Hold me, I need human contact. You don’t have to say anything. Just be there. Give me a hug. Remember me during the holidays. Just be there."