Handling the Holidays After A Loss


Mike Courtney, Ph.D, and the founder and director of Branches Recovery Center in Murfreesboro, TN, shares how he is handling his 1st holidays after the loss of a family member:

We sat last week in the very back of a local, quaint restaurant called Miller’s Grocery. It was years ago a one room, general store, nestled beside a railroad track and next to the Post Office in a tiny, Tennessee village. Today it has been converted into a “must eat at” tourist kind of venue known for its squash casserole and dessert buffet. And it is a popular place for Thanksgiving dinner for those families who either don’t want to cook or don’t want to stay at home. We were in the latter crowd.

This is our first holiday season without Mom and we just wanted to do something different. Doris and I and Jacob, my step-father Sammy, and my sister Chonda, picked through dressing and gravy, shoved pieces if turkey around on our plate, and made tunnels in the mashed potatoes. They were out of the squash casserole. We tried to talk about meaningless stuff. We made jokes about the people that were eating around us. But like moths drawn to a flame we found ourselves talking about Mom and shedding tears in our sweet tea.

One of our favorite stories about Mom is the phrase she invented when she was writing her little memoirs. She was describing some of those events that we all face that drain us of our joy; those unavoidable chapters in life that take the laughter from our hearts and the smiles from our faces. She said those are “happy sucking” moments because they suck the happiness from us. I know what she was trying to say but the phrase just didn’t get it. “Happy sucking” somehow moves me to giggles rather than convey the somber, sober subject that Mom was trying to express.

We made it through the meal but I spent a lot of time thinking about the countless number of other families that are facing the holidays with an absent place at the table. Maybe this has been the year of a divorce, a death, or a deployment. For whatever reason you are wondering how your will endure the present opening around the tree or watching alone as the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. Well, here are some suggestions that seem to be helping us:

• First, don’t be afraid to change some traditions. Do something you’ve never done before this season. Eat out instead of staying in. Take a trip. Buy Christmas for a needy family. Just do something completely different this year to change the pace.

• Secondly, embrace the emotions. Rather than trying to avoid those tearful moments or hide from painful memories, welcome those times. Get it out. Talk about it. Cry a little bit and then go on. I think you’ll find healing comes much more quickly when you allow yourself the freedom to be sad instead of feeling like you have to stuff it down.

• Third, slow down a little bit. Take some of the stress out of the holiday this year by easing up on the activities and expectations. The office party will be okay without your famous sugar cookies this year. You don’t have to finish all of those hand-made birdhouses for every neighbor on the street. This holiday season make sure that you take time for you.

• Finally, keep it simple. That sounds a lot like number three but I mean more than that. Let this holiday season really be about the simple message of a baby in a manger. Focus on the simple truth of Emmanuel, Christ with us, and let that be enough. The blessed side of that emptiness in your heart is that it creates a space for Jesus to come in and comfort you. And He will.

7 responses

  1. we live in Rutherford county in LaVergne, TN. My husband and I enjoyed eating at Millers many times. He died on Sept. 8 2012 after 7 years of treatment for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia). We have three grown daughters and three grandchildren. This is our first holidax without him and the pain of his suffering and death are very new. Praying for your family now and in the new year.


    • Nola, I am sincerely sorry for the very recent loss of your husband. My husband went to heaven on Nov. 10, 2009 and I remember how much in a fog and dazed I felt during that first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. I can barely remember them. Just do what you feel like doing and don’t be disappointed if your daughters do something different. We each process grief in our own way.


    • Thanks Candy~I bought From One Widow To Another by Miriam Nerf at Lifeway. It has been a huge help. I will be reading it over and over as I work through my grief. Also have signed up for an 8 week grief group for loss of husbands through Alive Hospice that starts Jan. 15. I think that will be good for me.


      • Good Nola! That book was very helpful to me during my first year. I know a widow in Murfreesboro who may be doing a widow’s group at her church (New Vision) soon using Miriam Neff’s widow group DVD’s and material. If you are interested, please send me an email with your contact information so that she can get in touch with you and give you the details. Send it to candyfeathers@gmail.com Please feel free to email me anytime that you have any questions or just need to talk.


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