Gifts, Garlands, and Grief

Author: Sandy Goodman

Including your Lost Loved Ones in the Holidays

I remember our first Christmas season after. It began the first week of November in 1996, three short months into our worst nightmare, but a lifetime into missing our child of eighteen years. He had died suddenly, one of those "in the wrong place at the wrong time" things, and he took our hearts with him when he left. Summer screeched to a halt and autumn came and went without our participation. 


Still standing in confusion at the threshold of grief, we were stunned when the stores replaced the gloomy ghosts and goblins with sparkling ornaments and cheerful decorations. Neighbors strung lights on their houses, friends sent cards wishing us joy-filled holidays, and not one person mentioned Jason's name. Closing our drapes, we huddled in our cocoon, waiting for his return.

Thanksgiving passed. I recall the empty chair, the unbroken wishbone, and more turkey than three of us could eat. There was an unwatched football game and a failed attempt at gratitude. That was our day, and it was good enough. It was inconceivable that we would ever enjoy 
another holiday, much less be thankful for it.

Snow fell. Carols rang out, lights twinkled, church bells pealed. Our thoughts were of Jason, fixed more acutely on his departure than on his arrival eighteen years before. Memories of prior Decembers pervaded our present. Jason ice fishing. Jason sledding. Jason's birthday. Jason opening gifts. Jason throwing tinsel on the tree, on his brothers, and on the dog. Every memory brought tears but every tear brought Jason closer to us. We found him in the pain, the only place we knew how to get to. I believe that first Christmas had to be that way. Showing up was the best we could do. 

But now it is thirteen trees, thirteen silent nights, and thirteen collectable ornaments later. I've learned a few things about this path I'm on and found a few crutches for when the road gets too rough. Holidays can be disabling for those who grieve. I'd like to share some things that might help: 

  • Believe that your loved one is with you. Include them in your celebrations and in your sadness. Include them when you talk with others about old times and holidays past. If you don't mention them, no one else will. 
  • Talk to THEM. They hear your thoughts...and if you listen, you can hear their replies. 
  • Light candles. For thirteen years now I have lit a special candle for my son. This year I will light five, one for each of us, living or not. Why perpetuate the myth of separation? Jason is still a part of this family. 
  • Do good things in celebration of your loved one's life. Random acts of kindness bring smiles to everyone involved. ( Buy anonymous gifts, scoop snow from a stranger's sidewalk, or light candles at unmarked graves.
  • Connect with your loved one who died. Take a meditation class or create a special place to go to where you can feel their presence. 
  • Call a newly bereaved friend or neighbor and invite them to reminisce with you. Cry with them, listen to them, and share your journey. 
  • Give to an organization that your loved one supported. 
  • Make a memory tree. Buy a small tree and decorate it with tokens of your loved one’s life. 
  • Don't worry about what others will think. You are solely in charge of this journey. It's all yours.

Love someone who is grieving? Lost as far as how to help them through this upcoming holiday season? Any of the above suggestions can be adapted to fit your needs: give money in celebration of their loved one's life and tell them about it, make them a memory tree. However, there are two gifts that you can give to a person deep in the pit of grief that will mean more than anything else. Give your undivided attention. Give unconditional acceptance of their journey, wherever it leads them.

I won't end this with a wish that you have your merriest Christmas ever. I know that for some of you that is not possible or even desirable. Instead, my wish for you is this: that you find a quiet moment during the sometimes magical but often horrendous season upon us and relax; that you take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and envision your friend, child, parent, sibling, spouse, grandparent, or partner; that you accept that dead doesn't mean GONE; that you send out a "Merry Christmas" and "I love you" and then BELIEVE when you hear his or her whispered reply of "I love you, too. Merry Christmas."   

Sandy GoodmanBy Sandy Goodman: Sandy Goodman is the author of Love Never Dies: A Mother’s Journey from Loss to Love and the founder of the Wind River Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. She has presented at national conferences for The Compassionate Friends, Bereaved Parents of the USA, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Learn more about Sandy by visiting her websites at and