Coping with the Holidays

Author: TAPS

Advice from TAPS Survivors

Sometimes people expect us to plaster a smile on our faces and go about the holidays as if nothing were wrong. They don’t understand that every day is a challenge for us, especially in the early years and especially during the winter holiday season. Here are some honest observations from TAPS survivors about coping with the holidays. Although we may have different faith backgrounds and different relationships to our loved one, we can still find strength in each other and hope for this coming holiday season.

Holiday Table

Ashley Deason, surviving sister of Mike
Christmas of 2005 was the last time I saw my brother while he was on R&R leave from Iraq. It was also his favorite time of the year. He loved everything about it—the food, presents, movies, and snow. After he died, I couldn't imagine “celebrating” his favorite time of the year without him here so I made every excuse not to be home. Last year was my first Christmas Day at home with my parents since 2006. We watched Christmas Vacation, a movie we watched each year together as a family. In the back of my mind, I could hear Mike's laugh as we watched it, and it made me smile. We went to Mike's grave—which my parents had decorated weeks before with a wreath, tree, and flowers—held hands, and said a prayer. 

Leslie Blei, surviving mother of Eugene
This is our second Chanukah and second birthday (he was born December 20) without him. I found that making new memories and doing the holidays differently helped. The pain doesn't go away; you just learn to cope better. I would suggest you think of some funny stories about your loved one, tell one, and have each person there tell something fun about your loved one as well. That way your loved one is included. You need to remember that you are not the only one suffering.

Rose Bargo, surviving spouse of Troy
This will be the second holiday season that my husband was not here physically to celebrate holidays with us. I don't think about him as dead; I think of him as deployed. I know it sounds crazy, but this helped me get through my first holiday without him. I also wear my t-shirt with my husband's picture on it. That makes me feel he's with me everywhere I go. My bedroom is filled with my husband's pictures, and sometimes I talk to his picture, and I wrote letters to him which told him our everyday life. It helps me go through every day, the holidays past, and holidays that are coming.

Bill Smith, surviving father of Brandon
Our family is on its second Christmas now and missing our precious hero. It took a year for the intense grief to die down, knowing he is one of God's angels watching over us. I believe that when he feels us in pain, he hurts for us. We would never do anything to cause him unrest, only love! The memories help us cope with the holidays. Brandon loved Christmas.

Mary-Ann McLendon, surviving mother of Blake
This is my third Christmas without our Blake. I've been able to go through the motions a little smoother than the last two years. The first year is a blur. I really don't know how I managed to do what had to be done. Last year was not quite as intense as the first. This year tears still pop up along the way. But I keep hoping the day will come when I will feel the true love, joy, and happiness of the season again. I want to. It just hasn't happened yet. Maybe next year. 

Sarah Coast, surviving twin of Robbie 
My twin brother Robbie died in May 2002, so by Christmas I still didn't feel much like celebrating. My son kept asking me to put up a tree. So I pulled it all out, not expecting to see all the ornaments that Robbie and I had made, and it was a flood of memories. I remember looking at the ornaments and thinking that he had once touched these, and it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn't put those on the tree without Robbie there. I cried and then I decided that I just needed to buy all new ornaments, which we did. I bought an ornament in honor of Robbie, and each year, we have continued the tradition for ten years.

Deb Bonn, surviving mother of Beth 
This is our sixth holiday season without Beth. It is especially difficult to experience the holiday at home, so this will be the second year that we spend the holiday in Virginia at our son's house. For me, it is much easier not being home. I've been able to bake cookies and cook the dinner in Virginia with little emotional upheaval. Last year was the first year that I wrapped presents. 

Pam Lewis, surviving mother of Joe
Our precious Joe was killed November 17, so Thanksgiving is tough for us. This year we opted to spend it here at home with just my daughter and her family and my daughter-in-law and granddaughter, rather than having a huge day at my sister's with all the extended family. I still haven't the motivation to put up a tree. That was my and Joe's job. I have to figure out a new way of doing things. And that is the key. Your old way is gone. Holidays are different now. Everything is different. So, you keep the traditions that you can handle and you make new ones. I'm three years out and the pain isn't quite as raw every day. I'm not saying that there aren't crying days; there still are. Just not as many. 

Jeanne Weaver, surviving mother of Todd 
This year, the third without Todd, I found I had more traditional Christmas spirit. Yet as I write this I realize that, as with the past two years, tears have streamed down my face daily. Perhaps they always will. Christmas—a time of light, hope, and joy—is changed forever in my life. The tree went up earlier than ever this year, and the outside of the house is highly decorated with lights—lights for Todd. Todd loved Christmas outdoor lighting. He loved everything about Christmas. New traditions have been added to our Christmas. As always, we go to Christmas Eve service. But now on Christmas morning we drive three hours to Arlington National Cemetery and spend the morning with Todd, bringing his favorite gingerbread. Then we travel to share Christmas with his siblings and our grandchildren.

Andi Ralyea surviving sister of Jon
That first year, I hoped Christmas wouldn't come. I can't even remember Thanksgiving, but I'm sure it was spent sitting around the table with just the thought of what was missing rather than what was there. Having a small child, I did what I had to do to make that Christmas the best I possibly could. But all I could think of was the time I had with my brother and would never have again. As the years have passed, I no longer dread the holidays. Each year, Jon is represented with a new ornament on our tree. He may not physically be here, but he is still very much part of our family. While I can't reminisce with him about when we got our first Nintendo or built the giant snow fort, I can tell my son those tales, and they continue to live on. The holidays will never be the same, but we've learned to grow and adapt with our changing version of normal.