Finding Christmas Joy When You’re Afraid It May Be Lost

This is our third Christmas without John.  A few weeks ago I was in Walmart and saw all of the Christmas displays and was blindsided by grief. Thankfully, it was early in the morning and the store was vacant.  The soap and deodorant aisle bore witness to my tears as I stood there venting to the Lord. “Lord, I did two Christmases without him.  Aren’t we done yet?  I don’t want to do this alone again.”

John was a thoughful gift giver. He truly enjoyed brainstorming gift ideas and shopping together.  We always had a wrapping night a week or two before Christmas so that everything (well, most of it) was done ahead of time. It was so. much. fun. He loved seeing everything put into piles for each of the kids. He’d assess them to see if the gift distribution looked balanced. He’d pre-load batteries and then put toys back into their packages. He’d have a whole system for wrapping efficiently and quickly- our dining room table strewn with colorful paper, tape and piles.

Marriage can be so exquisitely beautiful even, and maybe especially, in the little delights.  sigh.

So, the past two Christmases have been tough. Of course, the first one, was incredibly difficult, and frankly, I wanted to disappear.  Kind of like Bilbo at his birthday party in The Hobbit– “I am going now. I bid you all a fond farewell!”  So we compromised, we stayed through that painful first Christmas because there was no escaping it. There was going to have to be a first Christmas at home without him.  “Let’s just get it over with.” But, two days after Christmas we raced to New York City for several days of distraction and fun. It was wonderful to get away.

Last year definitely felt easier. There were no firsts to endure, and the adjustments we had made the first year were more natural.

And, now, here I am at year three, and it is starting to feel familiar. There is less of a cringe factor.  I am looking forward to wrapping things up and enjoying this sweet time of celebrating the Best Gift with our kids. I have learned to be honest about the moments that are hardest for me, and I talk to the Lord about how to redirect them.

So, for those of you who may be walking in similar shoes- widowed, single mom, or missing someone you cherish- here are a few practical things I do to manage the emotions and realities of the holidays.

1. The Dad Inspired Gift- I decided that each Christmas I wanted to choose a gift for our kids that John would have enjoyed giving them. It doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. I just try to think of something that would make John smile to give them and the kids smile to receive.

The first year I had the idea of taking the kids to Build-A-Bear. We all made bears (and tucked lots of hearts inside of them). I have never been a stuffed animal person. Until now. Sometimes, when you are missing someone so deeply and desperately, you simply need a hug. But there isn’t always someone around. And, you might need a hug for a long time- like all night. It is a job that stuffed animals do well. I told the kids to stand and hug every bear until they found the one that felt right. The one that made them feel comforted to hug and hold. So we all bought bears. I have discovered that stuffed animals have two amazing qualities: faithfully present and completely unconditional. A lot like my dog, Sadie.

Last year, I gave my girls infinity rings and my son a computer programming course for kids (John loved computers from a young age and would have passed that on to him).  This year : )  NOPE I can’t tell you because my girls sometimes read this blog and I LOVE surprises!  But, they will all smile on Christmas morning. AND I AM SO EXCITED!!

I love the Dad Gift idea because it gives our emotions and love for John a tangible place to go. He is still part of our morning. I get more excited about those gifts than anything else I give them. I know John would love this idea and would smile.

2. Wrapping by myself- Ugh. I decided to make it more bearable. I wrap during the day when they are in school and watch a movie for company. I also try to have something to indulge in that I usually don’t treat myself to- Starbucks mint cocoa or holiday M&Ms…a little perk to keep me going. Chocolate always helps.  🙂

3. Putting out gifts- We used to do this Christmas Eve night and inevitably, it would turn into a very early morning! I just can’t do that. So, I put out all of their gifts under/around the tree a few days before Christmas (we wrap each kids’ presents in one kind of wrapping paper so we know at a glance who it is for). It is nice to come home from church on Christmas Eve and have everything done except for the stockings. Staying up late by myself is full of too many emotional landmines. I feel like I am a live Hallmark channel movie. Bleh. So it is better to keep it simple and head to bed.

4. Eating breakfast together Christmas morning- the first two years that was way too painful so we ate in the living room after gifts. We didn’t have to endure his empty place at the table.

5. Getting out of town- It was a mercy to get out of town right after the first Christmas. It breaks the spell of grief. We all needed a break from the intensity of being at home without him. This year I hope we can do a night or two away before the kids go back to school. A little road trip does wonders for my perspective.

6. Christmas Eve service- We love going to the late Christmas Eve service at our church. It has become a treasured, quiet, calming hour. Christ’s birthday celebrating at its best. Last year at the close of the service, we all went outside with candles. A couple hundred of us. Bundled, breath made visible, singing, welcoming the celebration that was announced in the stars. It was holy and lovely and reminded me that our new life continues to unfold with undeniable beauty.

7. A fake tree- Yep. We always had a real Fraser fir. Most years we were content with a nearby lot (no hikes through the forest). But that first year I was dreading the thought of the watering and the mess. Besides I didn’t want to burden anyone with helping us get it cut, in the stand, and in the house. I decided that I needed to streamline. So, I gave myself permission to buy a really nice artificial tree on Black Friday. Christmas does not = fresh tree. Truthfully, I love my new tree. This year my mom-in-law gave me the perfect addition: a reed diffuser (little sticks in a jar filled with fragrant oils) that smells like a fir tree. It makes our tree seem real.

8. Look for ways to help- There are many reasons why, but for us, it is important to remember that the scope of suffering in this life is huge. We aren’t the only people with loss or broken hearts. It would be easy to get self-fixated, but I believe we must actively engage in the needs in the world so that we continue to care and love with depth. When I don’t know of someone in need, I pray that the Lord will show us who to help. He always does.

9. Give your kids opportunities to give– As parents we know the joy of giving.  For kids grappling with the paradox of great loss and holidays, the joy of giving can be a greater, more meaningful blessing than ever. Make sure their gifts to others are a priority. They don’t have to be store bought. Handmade and homemade are always treasured. Pinterest is your friend for ideas! : )

10. Encourage your kids to be real with their emotions- but know they really just want Christmas to be wonderful again. They feel robbed. It is going to take time to adjust, but it will happen.

These are just a few suggestions. If you’re in my shoes, be creative and figure out what works for you and your kids: something that will raise the joy and smile factor (but not cause financial stress in January!), something that will lessen the intensity of the pain. Cry when you need to. Laugh as often as you can. Pray about every stress you feel. Overall, I would say that I have learned to face the hardest moments of holidays ahead of time, and I try to re-direct them. We are still learning how to do this. I am sure I will learn more this year. It’s okay.

It is important to me that our kids know we are still fully celebrating Christmas because it was always about more than family memories. Our true joy is in the Gift that brought life and light into our hearts forever. And that Gift will never ever change. May your heart find its greatest joy in knowing we’ve already been given the perfect gift: Jesus, to find Him is to know Christmas.

Amazingly, He makes my heart merry- Maria

PS  We usually try to read through something as a family for advent. (a few nights a week if we can) This year we are enjoying reading through Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp. Truly, I can’t recommend it enough. There is a version for families and for adults.  We are reading the family version together even though my kids are older.  It is absolutely compelling.  Go here to find out more. We will probably be reading it well into January! But after all, every day of the year should be a celebration of Him! : )

4 thoughts on “Finding Christmas Joy When You’re Afraid It May Be Lost

  1. Wonderful again, Maria! Thank you for your honesty, and your tips for getting through Christmas while missing a loved one. I immediately thought of some close friends who are also single parents this year, and your blog gave me some ideas of ways that we can serve them. Blessings to you all this Christmas!


  2. Thank you Maria for your encouraging words. Even after almost 11 years, Christmas can sometimes bring back a rush of emotions & feelings.

    My son has 100’s of stuffed animals! He says they are his brothers & sisters he doesn’t have. I have a few that he has given me 🙂 They are truly hug givers!

    Love to you & your family. Thank you for sharing


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