When You're Facing Your First Christmas Without A Loved One

by Rachel Braun
Originally Published: 
Rachel Braun

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Your tree is up and decorated. The stockings are hung over the fireplace, and your home is twinkling with Christmas magic. Holiday music fills the air, and everywhere you go people are spreading holiday cheer. This is ordinarily a joyous time of year meant for parties and celebrations with friends and family. There is an unwritten expectation of being jolly and full of holiday spirit. But for many who will be facing their first Christmas without a loved one, this season can also bring tremendous grief.

Seven years ago, this was me. Completely numb to the joys of the season, simply going through the motions for my kids, about to experience the worst Christmas of my life. I had just lost my dad in September to lung cancer. The time from diagnosis to his passing was less than six weeks. When the holidays rolled around, I was still very much in a state of shock. Doing normal Christmas things seemed unimaginable.

My dad was larger than life. He was most often the loudest, most joyful person in the room at family gatherings, especially during the holidays. They were his absolute favorite. I simply could not imagine spending a Christmas without him there. It was unfathomable that I would go shopping and not buy him a gift. And as I thought about ringing in the new year, the only thing I could think was that 2010 would be the first calendar year that would not include my dad.

My inner grief was taking over every thought. Every potential joy was trumped by the fact that my dad was not there to experience it too. And as I was struggling internally with my overwhelming grief, everything going on around me seemed to fall apart. It was as if the universe was aligning to ensure I would have the worst Christmas ever.

It was supposed to be my Christmas off that year, but my boss informed me I would have to work. I listened to her tell me over the phone how she knew it was hard, how she too had lost her dad, and she understood. I was speechless. I wanted to scream into the phone that she had no idea what I was going through. She lost her 85-year-old dad to a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I lost my 54-year-old dad after an extremely short battle with cancer. What I wouldn’t give to have had my dad for 30 more years. Because you see, the thing about grief is that it is often very personal and a little selfish. In my head, I knew she was dealing with grief as well, but my heart felt it could not possibly match what I was feeling. Besides, she didn’t have to work on Christmas.

Instead of being together on Christmas, my family and I got together on the 23rd to exchange gifts. I honestly don’t remember much about our gathering. Without my dad, everything just seemed so much quieter. It felt as if we were merely pretending to celebrate Christmas, mostly for the children. The joyful, festive atmosphere was not there. I think each one of us was in our own private echo chamber of grief. Because even within the same family, every person experiences their grief differently.

After “celebrating” with my family, I had to work for the next two days. It was almost a welcome break from my daily turmoil. We went to Christmas Eve mass, and we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner because I definitely didn’t feel like cooking. In fact, I think most of our dinners were from restaurants or fast food joints in the months surrounding my dad’s illness and passing. And to top off my already shitty Christmas, my youngest puked while my husband was putting her in the car following dinner.

Rachel Braun

At first, we chalked it up to bad food. Then the following night while I was working, my oldest daughter threw up as well. Thank God I was at work, one of the few blessings in disguise at that point. Tis the season for stomach bugs.

We were all set to head up to my in-law’s in Minnesota in a couple days, but I was feeling like that might not be the best idea. On the other hand, I did not want to be the one to cancel Christmas for my husband, so he called his parents to see how they felt about the situation. They were insistent that we come regardless. To this day, I still can’t believe we went.

I’m sure you can see it coming already. Everyone was feeling OK on the drive up, but by the time we got there, I began to feel just a little off. I made a point not to kiss or hug or breathe near anyone when we arrived. We ate dinner and sat down to open gifts. After the first round of gifts, I looked to my husband and simply shook my head. Then I proceeded to leave the room and spent the next two days either in bed or kneeling in front of the toilet.

And the icing on the cake of my shitastic Christmas? Several other people got sick as well. At least I could bring a small piece of my horrible holiday for everyone to experience. If I was miserable, then everyone should be as well, right?

Now, of course, I did not tell this entire story purely for the sympathy of every person who reads it. I told it because I believe it is important for people to hear, especially this time of year. It is necessary to understand that not every person will be joyful during the holiday season. Maybe you know someone who will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Make them a meal, offer to watch their kids for a night, take them out for a drink, or just let them know that you get it.

If you encounter someone who seems grumpy, maybe a bit rude, or just not in a cheery Christmas mood, don’t be so quick to write them off as a Scrooge. Appreciate the fact that the holidays are not always wonderful, joyful, and magical for everyone.

And if you are like I was seven years ago, spending your first Christmas without the one person who made the season come alive, know that it gets better. Yes, that first Christmas was extremely rough, still the worst one to date. But in the years since, I have found the joy again. The magic of Christmas returned through sharing holiday traditions with my children and remembering the best of my father and sharing those memories.

Of course, every year a song comes on or a memory resurfaces, and I might tear up and take a moment to miss my dad. And the holidays will undoubtedly never be the same. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be good and joyful and magical once again.

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