Ghosts of Christmas Past

I didn’t anticipate blogging about this topic for Steph’s Fit Culture but with the holidays fast approaching, it is heavy on my mind and I’ve come to realize that loss comes in many forms. While you might not be facing the holidays after the death of a loved one, “loss” can come in the form of divorce, a break-up, the aging of parents & children, and the “loss” of what the holidays used to look like. This often causes the holidays to be sad and lonely for many people. I have grown to realize that this feeling of sadness & longing for “Christmas Past” isn’t exclusive to widows, widowers, and people grieving the death of a loved one. is an epidemic that sweeps a large population this time of year so I felt compelled to write about it.

To be honest, even before my husband passed away, I would start getting anxiety about the impending holidays around August: trying to create a magical time for my four children and balancing family visiting us in California for the holidays each year seemed more and more daunting. Even without the loss of a loved one, the holidays can often be challenging even when life seems to be going well or as “planned.” When my husband passed away in February of 2014. My kids were 8, 12, 16 & 19 years old and the thought of putting on any holiday, birthday, or major life event by myself was frankly terrifying, debilitating, and seemingly impossible; not to mention, it felt incredibly sad and pathetic. My first call to action was to inform Chase, my youngest, that there was no Easter Bunny because I didn’t want the pressure of having to orchestrate all the things this magical bunny (Kurt) would do and I honestly thought Chase might suspect that this was fake news by now. But sadly, I crushed his holiday with this news and then promptly informed him that Santa Claus was a fake as well. Chase was incredulous that we had lied to him all these years; while equally sad that these gift-bearing magical/mythical characters were actually just his parents – one of who had just died a month ago. I don’t think I was going for mother of the year at this point. Anyways, once I absolved myself of the responsibility of impersonating the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, I tried my hardest to avoid celebrating Christmas in any way that resembled the past and for the first couple years, I avoided being home with family for Christmas or even decorating the house. The kids and I went out of town, and did everything we could do to pretend it wasn’t Christmas. All holidays were tough but Christmas just seemed to drag on forever. It is one of those holidays that is hard to spend with friends (versus Thanksgiving or Easter) when your kids are young; people tend to stick to their family for Christmas eve and Christmas day. Plus, being around “normal” families with a mom and dad seemed to accentuate our circumstances and loss and I tried to avoid that feeling like it was the plague. So avoiding Christmas like it was the plague was my way of coping in the early years of my grief… but it just created this big elephant in the room. While this was the best I could do at the time, I realized I needed to find another way to face the holidays. Plus, it wasn’t fair to my kids to rob them of having traditions and memories to emulate when they have their own families. Much of what Kurt and I put on during the holidays was versions of the joyful memories created for us by our own parents. This lead me to realize that I needed to create new memories of Christmas to blend with their old ones.

Being able to find joy during the holidays in the wake of loss (whatever that loss looks like to you) is obviously going to look different for everyone, but I want to share how I eventually made peace with the holiday season and now look forward to it. I am not exaggerating or being dramatic here, but the first two years, I couldn’t listen to Christmas music or bring myself to open our boxes of Christmas decorations. The thought of hearing happy Christmas songs and pulling out a lifetime of Christmas decorations collected throughout 24 years of marriage and four kids seemed heavy to me. It was the ghost of Christmas past and I just couldn’t do it. My solution was to save the old decorations to give to the kids when they were grown up and get new decorations to decorate the house. This turned out to be fun for my kids and they enjoyed picking out beautiful and shiny new ornaments; although they did miss laughing at some of the silly and home-made decorations they had made over the years (that had their place on the back of the tree). But it did help to avoid that feeling of sadness during a fragile time when we frankly couldn’t handle it. As the initial shock and pain of the holidays without Kurt started to soften a bit, I had the kids pick out some of the old tree ornaments that were meaningful to them to spur some old memories. I don’t know if this resonates with any of you, but this helped me to look forward to the holiday season a bit more than the year before.

Letting go of expectations and allowing space and tolerance for the fact that each of my kids had their own way of coping with the holiday was equally important in making peace with it; there is no one size fits all way of getting through feelings of loss during the holidays. I think it is important to recognize that everyone grieves differently and goes through the process at different times; especially when you have four kids. Some of my kids like to talk about memories and the past while to this day, it is still difficult and painful for others to express. One of my kids found it easier to get through the holiday in those first few years by going over to a friend’s house for a few hours on Christmas Day. Another one of my kids would go surfing for a few hours. This would have seemed ridiculous that we not all be together the whole day, but realizing the importance of being flexible and letting go of expectations of what the holidays should look like was key in eventually enjoying it again. This new way of handling Christmas day took the pressure off the afternoon and an awkward holiday dinner. So we shifted our celebration to a big brunch with presents in the morning and the flexibility to do what they wanted after so that the holiday didn’t feel awkward, forced, or heavy.

Christmas eve was always the big party and celebration and this dated all the way back to my own childhood. My dad had a lot of siblings and as a result I had a lot of cousins! We would all gather on Christmas eve at my aunt’s house and it was a very festive and magical night. Christmas eve was equally the focal point of the holiday during Kurt’s childhood as they would decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas eve and open their gifts that evening as well. When we got married and had our own kids, Christmas eve was just one big party. My parents had a second home in San Diego to avoid east coast winters and many Christmas Eves were spent at their house with my sisters, nieces, nephews, and many of my friends & their kids. When Kurt passed away, my parents decided to sell their house in San Diego and live full time on the East Coast. While this felt like a double loss, the thought of spending Christmas eve in the same way we did before seemed very depressing and their move eventually made it easier to form new traditions. When I finally made peace with Christmas, we came up with a new tradition of going to church, out to dinner at our favorite Japanese cooking table restaurant, and lastly followed by a movie. I am also fortunate to have some very good friends that don’t have a traditional looking family situation.. through divorce or some other circumstance, I have been able to spend some of the holiday with friends and their kids whose situation doesn’t accentuate our feeling of loss. I think it is important to spend time with people that help ease the feelings of loss while making new traditions that blend into your old ones.

Anyways, I know this is a bit off topic from health and wellness but I felt compelled to share my experience and journey…and to anyone facing the holiday after a loss (of any kind).. know that you are not alone!

Sending Peace & Love


One Response

  1. Wow- I loved reading your post, Steph. Very thoughtfully and many valuable insights. Thank you for sharing this and Merry Christmas to you all!

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