Suffering loss of a loved one can be painful enough, but it is more difficult during holidays and special occasions.  Missing your lost loved one is most keenly felt during these times.  Your feelings are most pronounced when the event happens for the first time after the death, and, among grievers, these are sometimes called “The Firsts.”

The “Firsts”

You’re in the grieving process and

Developing OK;

But, things do change and you’re set back,

When come the “special days”.

For Christmas, anniversary,

Or birthday…you’re aware;

Such days bring floods of memories,

You visualize them there.

For any special fam’ly days,

The ones that are the worst;

Are those within 12 months or so:

For grievers, they’re “The Firsts”.

First birthday, anniversary,

First vacation, Christmas season;

You especi’lly miss the person for

A myriad of reasons.

The “firsts” loom large as obstacles,

‘Cause sadness wells within you;

It’s hard to live through days like these,

So healing can continue.

We feel changed during these times because of the void we feel from absence of our loved one.  How do we successfully get through this period?

The approach I took was to plan activities so the person was remembered and honored in some way.  At the same time, I made some changes in the day’s events so the person’s absence is not the only thing that’s different.

I most profoundly feel a sense of missing my wife, Nancy, during holidays.  The void or feeling of absence is so dominating that it seems to be a separate being I have to deal with during this time. Whatever I am feeling is magnified by my empty-chair sensations.  The void has a great effect on me, more than any person or thing in my existence.  It is a deeply moving spiritual experience.

The first Christmas after Nancy’s death affected me the most.  Although our home was full of family, my void made me feel very much alone.  Distant voices of the people did little to reconnect me to what used to be my reality.  The void stood in the way all day and influenced my thinking so profoundly that I felt detached.

Five Steps I took for the first Christmas

Christmas had always been a special time, particularly for Nancy.  She would go to great effort with holiday decorations and arranged numerous times for us to connect with family, friends, and especially our grandchildren.  For the first Christmas after her death, I did have feelings of detachment, but I also made a special effort to remember Nancy with those who’d been so important to her.  There were five things I did that seemed to be most helpful.

Grandma’s Christmas Tree

For the first Christmas after Nancy’s death, I put a lighted garland on our massive stone fireplace mantle in our great room. It replaced the tree we had in previous years. I had a special gathering of our children’s families to introduce the garland and tell them how I will decorate for Christmas in the future.

After I had set aside some special ornaments for me, each grandchild picked his or her own ornament from our decorations.  They selected an ornament as their “memory of Grandma’s Christmas Tree.” I asked them to put it on their trees at home for all future Christmases.  Each grandchild also made an ornament for Grandpa’s Christmas garland.  They will be part of my decorations as long as I have Christmas at my home.

Memory Teddy Bears

I saved some of Nancy’s clothes that were unique and characteristic of what she liked to wear.  I arranged for teddy bears made from the “Nancy fabrics” and gave these bears as gifts to each of the adult children and to several other friends and relatives. The following poem was included:

Your Teddy Bear

For Christmas Day, you get a gift,

I’d wanted so to find;

It’s custom-made and represents,

What Nancy brings to mind.

It’s just for you and made from clothes,

That Nancy used to wear;

It’s filled with special thoughts of her:

Your mem’ry Teddy Bear

Christmas Day Dinner

When my six children, their spouses, and 10 grandchildren gathered for Christmas dinner, I made different table arrangements. In the past, we had a table of the grandkids and a table of the adults.  This time, I mixed seating for the adults and children all together and mostly tried to place older children with uncles and aunts, not their parents. Everyone was encouraged to ask others about how they were feeling, what they were thinking, and what their special memories were.  Conversations around the room were lively and nonstop for the whole meal.

Before Dinner Comments

In previous years we had a prayer before the dinner on Christmas.  This year, I asked everyone to say something positive about Nancy and Christmas Day.  I also encouraged them to say how they felt.  With everyone saying something, the comments took nearly an hour.  Each of the speakers had everyone’s rapt attention.

Christmas Cards

Nancy was an artist who painted mostly abstract pictures.  She painted most of her life and won many awards for her work. Before Nancy died, we took photographs of her six favorite paintings.  I had full color copies made and sent a set to each person on our Christmas card list.

I wrote the following poem to accompany the pictures.

Artfully Yours at Christmas

The holidays this fateful year,

Have finally arrived;

So many things occurred, I don’t,

Know how we all survived;

While Nancy lived her final scenes,

The toughest you can find;

We had a chance for our good-byes,

With tears, yet joys combined.

Our Nancy was so thankful for

What in her life was real:

Like seeing those who mattered most,

And hearing how they feel.

We talked before she passed away…

She wanted me to send;

A special Christmas message to,

Her family and friends.

I’m sending you a memory,

Right straight from Nancy’s heart;

Enclosed are pictures of the ones,

That were her fav’rite art.


Edward Gray

Ed Gray graduated from Cornell with a degree in mechanical engineering and earned his MBA while in the military. He is the author of the new book, Essence of Grieving. From the early 1970s to the end of 2007, his career was marketing and new business development for plastics in the auto industry. Ed has been doing woodworking since he was a teenager. Recently this has evolved to sculpture involving natural materials such as driftwood and stone. He is widowed and lives north of Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his blended family, there are six children and eleven grandchildren (so far). Ed enjoyed poetry as a child but never wrote any until he met his wife Nancy in 1984. She inspired him to begin writing; her creativity, artistry, and loving support encouraged him to develop his poetry extensively. Ed published his first book, In Rhythm with Your Feelings, early in 2004. His next two books, both published in 2005, were “adult humor”: Ode to a Load and Ode to a Load … Look, I did a number 2. He was working on a fourth poetry book when Nancy became ill and then passed away from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). To help him through her dying process, Ed began journaling. Toward the very end of Nancy’s life in June 2008, this had evolved into using poetry to express how he felt and what was happening in his life. This poetry exploded after her death and has been a crucial part of his movement through the grieving process and transition back into life.

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