Death at Christmas: Six Ways to Cope

 

death at Christmas

Six ways to cope with a death at Christmas.

On a December 22, I signed the paperwork to remove my mother from life support systems.

We buried her December 26.

That was the worst Christmas of my entire life.

I’ve never felt the same way about the holiday since.

Oh, yes, I know it celebrates the Savior’s birth. I know it’s a festive time of gaity, lights, parties and gifts.

I love the Christmas carols, Handel‘s Messiah and other musical treats. I sing in the choir and play in a woodwind quintet.

I adore writing and receiving Christmas letters.

But I hate how I feel this time of year. Rejoicing makes me feel guilty. I remember Mom, and I feel sad.

My father never recovered, emotionally, from my mother’s sudden collapse while teeing off at the golf course. He had a crisis at Christmas for the next (and last) seven years of his life.

I spent too many “holiday seasons” discussing end of life issues with hollow doctor’s voices over the phone. Nurses called with requests for DNRs while I watched the lights flicker on the tree and listened to the rum-pa-pa-pum of the drummer boy.

Excruciating.

My children were in elementary school when my mother died. I had a little girl who loved the idea of nutcrackers and baking Christmas cookies. She savored the excitement of holiday parties and wondering about mysterious packages. She begged to celebrate the season with every gusto in her body.

And my body? A dragging weighty horror that I had to relive this season one more time without my mother.

Intellectually, I understood. This was my daughter’s only childhood. Was it fair to her that for me every activity bore the shadow of my missing mother?

Of course not.

But it was just. so. hard.

How to get through a death at Christmas 

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1. Recognize how emotionally vulnerable you are and enlist help. My wonderful, logical husband didn’t understand how difficult everything about Christmas had become for me until I told him, oh, about year eight. Once he knew, he could help me. But if all I did was moan about how I hated Christmas, I didn’t provide him with any insight for him to ease my grief. My prayer partner, too, began praying with me starting in November!

2. Focus on things you CAN do with joy. I love to write and receive Christmas cards and letters. This I could do with joy and I focused there. I also could bake cookies with my daughter and create the annual pun, the Yule log, to serve on Christmas Eve. Of course I can sing in the choir and, sometimes, lose myself in that long ago joy of understanding, for the first time, how crucial the babe in the manger is for our salvation.

Death at Christmas: Yulelog

3. Consider who else is involved. I lost a mother, but so did my brothers. My children lost a grandmother and my poor father . . . I needed to think of ways to make “the season” better for them. My children could acknowledge the loss of Grammy, but did they deserve a mother who wouldn’t buy presents, wouldn’t cook a meal, wouldn’t attend a band concert, wouldn’t play Handel’s Messiah and who answered every breathless request with “no?” I needed to be selfless for their sake, but I also needed to mourn.

4. Remember to grieve. I remember my mother every December 22. I pull out one of her nutcrackers and think of her while I set it up. I cry when I hang the tree ornaments she purchased from all over the world. I tell stories about her, funny stories about her foibles, and sometimes we even remember to toast her at Christmas dinner.

5. Invent new traditions. I didn’t realize we had done this until my daughter-in-law asked “Where are you going for Christmas this year?” We started traveling the Christmas after my father died, not because of his death but because that was the only time our college students were guaranteed available. Or so I thought. In reality, maybe I was fleeing, but was that such a bad thing the first couple years?

6. Celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. It’s about Jesus, God with us, not every other Americanized holiday tradition. We still are very busy at Christmas, but if I take my aching heart to the babe in the manger, I can put December 22 and 26 into perspective.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but I still miss my mother.

 

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27 Comments

  1. jan johnson

     /  December 13, 2012

    Michelle, I know exactly how you feel. My father died on Christmas day from brain cancer when I was 17. It was a long time before I could even begin to “celebrate” Christmas, although on the outside it seemed as though everything was fine. Jesus IS the reason for the season, and I will continue to miss my dad as always.. May God bless us both this season.

    Reply
  2. I was just talking with Gerry about a terrible tragedy that’s just happened where he lives. He actually said, “How would you ever be able to celebrate Christmas again?” Now I know. xox

    Reply
    • You do the best you can. You don’t want everyone else to be miserable, so you have to rise above your pain and put one foot in front of the other.

      Reply
  3. Cherry Odelberg

     /  December 13, 2012

    Sometimes it takes a number of years to acknowledge and articulate grief and need. Thank you for sharing so others can get a running start.

    Reply
    • That’s my hope, Cherry, to help those feeling down but also their loved ones. The kids don’t realize the why and spouses may not put it together.

      Reply
  4. Charlie

     /  December 13, 2012

    I’m a big grump around Xmas. I didn’t realize why until, like you, a few years ago I associated my feelings with the loss of mom. I take no joy in the decorations and can hardly wait to take them down. The last couple of years we have been getting away ourselves which has helped. But the kids still dread being around me for a couple of days. 🙁

    Reply
  5. I will never forget returning from the funeral and having Dad wave his arms. “Make Christmas go away.” I felt numb and went right to work.

    Make Christmas go away.

    Reply
  6. I’ve been wondering, Michelle, does your last name rhyme with Yule or not?

    My dad died on Dec. 28, 2004. My mom, who had been the one in the family to make Christmas extra fun, stopped doing her usual Christmas stuff after that. She died in June of 2010.

    Since Mom died, my brother, sister-in-law, & niece have distanced themselves from us, although they only live a couple miles away. They are the only “extended family” we ever see (no other siblings for me, & hubby’s an only child), & now we aren’t even seeing them. I feel like I’ve lost my family of birth. That really hurts, especially because it is their choice.

    But I am so blessed that the family Lee & I have together – 2 grown daughters & grandson, all living with us – has grown closer. And we are blessed to have a loving church family.

    So I focus on who I do have in my life, & try to make them happy. Having a sweet, adorable 2-year old grandson sure helps.

    Reply
    • Yes, it rhymes with yule. My mother-in-law’s name was Mary and she had a lot of fun at Christmas time.

      Very sorry about your family situation but glad you can forge new traditions and joy with your grandson. There are so many minefields with Christmas, it’s good to recognize what they are so you can step, carefully, around them. Sure takes a lot of emotional energy, however! Merry Christmas.

      Reply
  7. JaniceG

     /  December 14, 2012

    My mother died on Dec. 26 and I remember how odd it seemed while riding home from the hospital that night and seeing all the Christmas lights and it seemed as if they were faded out, not so bright and colorful as usual. My dad also died in December many years before my mom died. And my father-in-law died right before Christmas and we had to wait until after the holiday to have his funeral. I was very concerned that no one would come to the funeral because who wants to do that during their special vacation time? I felt like a beggar calling some people to ask if they might arrange to come to his funeral. But, the hope of heaven overpowers the gloom of death that can seemingly overtake the celebration of new life at Chrstmas. Seeing Baby Jesus lying in the manger at the front of the church alongside my mother’s casket brought great comfort to me at that time. Hearing the pastor speak about Anna in the Bible with Baby Jesus and being compared with my mom since her first name was Annie and she was the same age as Anna was such a comforting message. I don’t know, can’t imagine, how I would feel without that Christian comfort. So for me, the message of new life resonates and overcomes the power of death to bear down on a person’s joy at Christmas. Keep the focus on Jesus and all the promises we have through His life and death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. May the celebration go on and on year after year!

    Reply
  8. KimH

     /  December 14, 2012

    Michelle, you always manage to touch me with these writings. I read it when you first posted it and no one had made a comment. I didn’t want to be the first. You know how much I miss my dad. This will be my 4th Christmas without him. He died June 11th-right before Father’s Day and I had already bought his card. I am an introvert for the most part but that first Thanksgiving I called all my friends, told them I was cooking and I NEEDED them like I never had before. They came and I survived. We all deal with our grief in different ways. Thank you for sharing how you have dealt with it. It somehow makes me smile to think of you. Look at my table set with a Christmas cloth and dishes and imagine my dad holding court.

    Reply
    • I’m so impressed, Kim, that you recognized your vulnerability that first holiday season and did something about it. That’s the key–along with consciously taking time to grieve. It just makes “it all” more emotionally manageable. Blessings to you as always.

      Reply
  9. We did something very different for the next Christmas after my mother’s passing. We went to our cousin’s big family gathering instead of having our usual small family gathering which would have been so noticably missing my mother’s presence. With all the activity and hub-bub going on at our cousin’s we were engaged in other family traditions, including a dog in the mix, people of all ages and stages, people coming in late from far distances, a crazy gift swap where you could take a gift someone else received if you liked it better and give them your gift. and even jalapeno peppers in the deviled eggs (yum). I suppose, like what Kim did, you could call this replacement therapy.

    Reply
  10. Thank you so much Michelle for sharing your heart. Your candor and broken heart resonate with my emotions after my father died. So painful. My daughter started flipping photos of my father over. When I asked her why she told me, Grandpa makes you sad. Indeed, those photos of my dad did make me sad. It is difficult to want to remember while at the time struggling with such deep sorrow. I so appreciate your vulnerability…it has blessed me. Love to you, Dawn

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  December 23, 2014

      Grief hits in such strange ways, and how interesting your young daughter picked up on what was making you so sad and had a remedy.

      I remember after my mom died I didn’t want to see the sun go down because each new day was a day she was not in the world. This Christmas has felt almost normal–cheerier, less weighed down–but she died 19 years ago. Which is also hard to believe. Blessings to you, Dawn.

      Reply
      • Beth T.

         /  December 24, 2016

        Oh, Michelle–your feeling of not wanting to see the sun go down makes me think of how gutted I was on the first new year’s eve after my mother died. I couldn’t bear to enter a new year without her, to leave the last year we shared. I find it strange and comforting how individual grief is, and yet how often those feelings are shared. One of my dear high school friends just suddenly lost her husband, and as I try to find the words to help her and her kids feel less alone, I call on that truth.

        Reply
        • Michelle Ule

           /  December 24, 2016

          So very true, Beth, in both of these responses. We grieve alone, even as we grieve with others, and mourning is different for each person. Some of us need to talk about it, others go internal–but as long as we’re working through the pain, we’re making progress (of a sort).

          I’ve come to see that “closure” is a myth and that for many of us, we focus on ending the grief rather than riding it. It’s astonishing to me how much of emotional life is like body surfing (!). You have a choice, to submit to the wave and ride it in, or fight with it and often get smacked to the sand. Going through the pain, living with it, walking around it, trying to fit that hole into a new life is all part of coming to accept change has happened.

          It’s really hard. It hurts, and yet it is the only way to come to a place where life looks out from the new person we are–changed because of the loss–into the new and hopefully more sensitive person we are in the future.

          I cry a lot easier now. I’m far more sympathetic and I think I love better because my parents are gone.

          And even as I type, tears prickle. I’ll always miss. I’ll always love them, but I’m determined to be thankful for the person they gave me the freedom to be–and by so doing, enable me to reach out and love those who hurt, especially at Christmas.

          Blessings to you, Beth.

          Reply
  11. I came back to read this again this Christmas. Two years since you wrote it! It is still good advice. Merry Christmas sweet friend.

    Reply
  12. Thank you, Michelle. As you might know, my sister Nan died two weeks ago–my younger sister. The Nan of the Jan&Nan. While it’s been rough, I’m choosing to focus on the life around me, ahead of me–and God’s purpose in all of that. Nan was the one who would bring the latest box game or card game…as well as the newest, greatest DVD to watch. She loved Jesus and knew she would be meeting him. So I bought box games for gifts this year and we’re watching movies–such as White Christmas, which she sent to my daughter Bethany one year when she just casually mentioned it was her favorite. Bam! There it was in the mail a few days later. That was Nan–a gift to us and the rest of the world. And that’s what I hope to be.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  December 23, 2015

      Im very sorry, Janet, and yes, I had seen your post. What a great idea to remember her by doing the things she loved best and how she used them to brighten everyone’s life as a show of love. Great idea. Maybe that’s why my family traveled all those Christmases–my parents were big travellers.

      One thing that has always helped me in the years since, is to remember to cry if I feel like it. Tears honor the importance of the relationship and make you feel better. It is a time of mourning and reflection and I rejoice with you all that you’ll see Nan again in Paradise. Blessings.

      Reply
  13. Michelle, I can’t imagine. I still have my mother and dad. I can only imagine how lonely life would feel without my mother. I don’t see her all the time, but I know she’s there. I do miss my grandparents terribly, but they didn’t pass away on a holiday … so I don’t have that linked. We have received some bad health news for a family member just yesterday … but I pray the problem isn’t terminal. At least not for a long time. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m saying a prayer for you right now, for this season … that God will hug you and give you peace this season … feel your father’s and mother’s love over you. God bless.

    Reply
  14. Michelle Ule

     /  December 8, 2016

    Ah, Shelli, thank you. My mom died 21 years ago this Christmas and we’ve adapted, it’s not anywhere near as bad as it was even when this post was written. My prayer partner has been a total blessing–checking in with me at the start of December and throughout the month. Sharing my pain with her all those years ago has helped a great deal–she prays for me starting around Thanksgiving. It’s just hard, sometimes, to be cheerful when your heart is breaking–as I’m sure you can known or imagine. Blessings to you and thanks for the prayer.

    Reply
  15. Hi, Michelle, I just lost a very dear friend, and lost my Mom who was my best friend, just two days before Mother’s Day, (in 1988). This Christmas also finds three (3!) of my loved ones facing possible death unless God allows healing. If I think too much about them … and my Mom, even today, it can be overwhelming. On a brighter note … thank you for writing! Also, thank you for retaining this post and others. I am a “newbie,” just finding out about YOU! Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  December 21, 2016

      I’m so sorry for your loss and pray for peace as you go through such a hard season. So many this year are struggling and the stories are heartbreaking. Be kind to yourself and your loved ones; hold them close.

      As I know you’ve already discovered, grief is like a sine wave that comes and goes, often showing up at the most unexpected moments. The pain eases with time, of course, but still stabs with longing to hear that voice, see that face one more time. Blessings to you and thanks for writing.

      Reply
  16. Beth T.

     /  December 24, 2016

    Thank you for this. I lost both of my parents at Christmastime, two years apart. It took the heart out of Christmas for me. In the last two years, (15 yrs later) we lost three of our beloved dogs over two Christmases, and that pretty much closed the deal. But, interestingly, while I am gutted at this time of year, my partner doesn’t seem to associate Christmas with those days of dog-chemo, sudden death, grief, and the change that was so profound in our home without children. So another lesson I have learned is that each person is different (surprise!). And while I would be just as happy letting the holiday slide by unnoticed, he loves the memory of when I used to love it. Your essay will help me find some of those moments, I hope.

    Reply
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