Christmas Without Chris

Author: Ami Neiberger-Miller

My brother, Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007 at age 22. The last time we saw him was at Christmastime when he came home from Iraq on leave eight years ago. All of the last photos of our family together and the last times we spent together were at the holidays.

Ami Neiberger-Miller and siblingsPhoto coutesy of Dr. Richard Neiberger

After his death, the holidays became very painful. We were always the kind of family that had a holiday routine and after he died, many of the things we had always done together hurt. The stockings my grandmother made for us years ago — that used to be hung by the chimney with excitement when we were kids — were so painful to look at, no one could even get them out of the box. It seemed like our joy was gone.

We can't always predict how the holidays will affect us. Those first holidays were awful. My stepchildren were out of town on Christmas that year, and we were rushing to get everything ready for our holiday celebration with them on the day they got back. I was crying so hard as I wrapped their presents that I had to call my husband, who was out doing errands, and ask him to come home. I was a wreck. I so desperately wanted to give our children the holiday they always had, but I was not up to it.

Cooking was hard, too. When I tried to cook for my stepchildren and husband around the holidays, I would burst into tears. All of the food reminded me of my family and what I had lost. I was so grateful that first year that my sister-in-law invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner, even though I was miserable and it was only a few months after Chris died. We visited the cemetery that morning on the way to her house. Over time, it got better, and I could cook again.

Over the years, we have tried many things: being together at the holidays, leaving town for the holidays, and being apart for the holidays. We even took a cruise for Thanksgiving two years ago as a family, which was something I would have never even considered in the past.

Some of the family traditions that we stopped after my brother died have returned to us in new ways, because of the arrival of our daughter, who is now 4 years old. When she arrived, there was recognition in my family that we collectively wanted her to have happy memories of the holidays and to experience the traditions that mattered to us. But we had to find new ways to do them. Those old stockings assigned to each of us in our childhood remain in the box, but we have new ones now.

Looking back, I would say it was important to lean on others for help and support. You may be trying to muscle your way through the holiday season, but grief can bubble up and disrupt even the most steadfast resolve. Be gentle with yourself and cut yourself some slack. Do the things you are comfortable doing and plan an "out" in case it's too much for you.

It is okay to change things if that feels right to you, and it is okay to keep them the same, too. If one person in a family insists on a particular tradition, assess the collective impact of it. Realize not everyone may know how he or she will feel about something until they are experiencing it.

If we are gentle with each other and supportive of what we all need, it makes going through grief at the holidays a little easier. We have held onto our customs as a family, but had to re-think our holiday traditions. It is still a work in progress for us.

Five Years Later

Postscript: Now five years later, Ami shares how their holidays are better than those early years:

We still have to be careful about what we do as it can be a sensitive time for all of us. The memories of my brother who died and that last Christmas he was home can seem more vivid at the holidays, but we are making new memories too.

Our daughter is older with her own expectations for the holidays. As a foster family, our holidays sometimes include more children, and some of those kids may have been through their own traumas. As a family, there’s a desire to provide a joyous holiday for all of the kids who live with us and to help them get through the holiday too. But that also makes our holiday even busier.

I find I have to be deliberate about finding a way to include my brother for myself. I might place a wreath at the cemetery on his gravesite or make a donation to a nonprofit in his memory, or tell a story about a family holiday event to my children.

If the extended family is spending Christmas at my home, I find it best to have a solid plan for our activities that is worked out in advance. My home is closer to Arlington National Cemetery, where my brother is buried, and other family members can’t routinely visit from out of town. If their trip is brief, then we need to discuss ahead of time who wants to go to the cemetery and figure out when it will happen.

Even though it’s been 12 years since my brother died, we are still figuring it all out. And that’s okay. 

Ami Neiberger-Miller, Surviving sister of Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger 

This reflection was first published in the TAPS Magazine Winter 2014, Issue 20, Volume 4, and is republished here with an updated postscript.