Tidings of comfort and joy? But what about my loss?

This is my favorite time of year. Nearby mountains cloaked in winter white. Gaggles of geese discussing where to winter. Breaking trail in snowshoes. Family and friends gathering and giving thanks and eating way too much pie and lighting candles and opening gifts and ringing in a New Year.

And yet, the holidays without a job, without our health, with missing loved ones just aren’t the same.


Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash


 So I asked the experts – friends who have weathered loss – what they did to help them cope through all that holiday cheer.


Almost everyone expressed their gratitude for supportive family and friends through the holidays.

But sometimes our blood relatives aren’t very compassionate or empathetic.

One widow had no desire to be with her family because they were impatient with her grief. Instead, she was rescued by a young couple she didn’t know well (the man had worked for her husband). “They came to my home, made me get dressed, and took me to her mom’s for Christmas dinner. I love their two little boys, so I had to pull myself together for them and I think they knew that.”

If necessary, we can create our own family from the people who get us, who love us, who want us around. Don’t try to do the holidays alone; connect with these kinds of people.


Traditions are important and fun and memorable. But sometimes they need to be temporarily set aside. A widow with a young son wrote, “I ran away for the first two years before I was ready to begin new traditions without my husband.”

And sometimes there’s a need for out-of-the-ordinary practices. A family lost their teenaged son to cancer on his twin sisters’ birthday. “In the morning, we celebrate our son’s life,” his mother wrote, “and in the afternoon we celebrate our girls.”

Michele L. Brennan, Psy.D. reports on the benefits of family rituals in “Why Holiday Traditions Might Be More Important Than You Think”:

Whether it’s stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey cooks, or family movie night … traditions are a wonderful way to anchor family members to each other.

Lighting the season

One winter day at dusk, I exited a restaurant in a touristy section of town to dozens of trees wrapped with white lights spreading upward into the lower branches.

I held my breath at its simple beauty.

There is science behind the use of light to help lift our spirits. Go ahead, light candles. Put up tiny white lights. Light the fireplace. And see if it doesn’t help chase away gloom.


Photo by Renate Solhaug on Unsplash


Simplifying gift-giving

Her first Christmas as a widow, one friend headed to a department store where she got something for everybody on her list. She said this strategy worked that first year, eliminating the stress of chasing all over town for items on sale. “I needed to simplify and just get it done.”

Did you catch the word simplify?

Consider easy homemade gifts because creating something—layering a soup mix in a Mason jar or knitting one of those cool slouchy hats—can be seriously therapeutic.

Or consider the gift of service via handmade coupons: “Good for one massage,” or “Good for a candlelit dinner for two.”

The Advent Conspiracy website suggests tickets to a ball game or a movie. And of course, the tickets come with you attached:

The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself.

Expressing gratitude

Even when there doesn’t seem much to be grateful for, there’s much to be grateful for. I’m currently composing my second list of 1000 things for which I’m thankful:

#579.  Granola-baking session with girlfriends

#580.  Fireplace lit against snow falling softly

#581. Fingerless mittens taking shape in knitted softness

#582. Ears in good working order to enjoy all my favorite Christmas tunes

When I fill my holidays with gratitude, there’s less room for sorrow over what’s missing. 

Giving back

The act of reaching out to others in need can help focus our attention off our own losses. (Disclaimer: For those dealing with new and deep grief or loss of health, please don’t pile unrealistic expectations upon yourselves.)

A widowed girlfriend wrote about spending Christmas in a children’s hospital with her infant daughter years earlier. People sang carols in the hallway and the baby girl received a homemade blanket and two stuffed animals. My friend now buys stuffed animals and delivers them to the same hospital. “It’s my favorite Christmas tradition!”


Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash



Several friends indicated that faith was a critical component in weathering their losses, not just during the holiday season, but year round.

If there hadn’t been a sense of purpose that eventually settled over Gary and me, if there hadn’t been that deep peace that comes from having a relationship with Jesus Christ, the hard road would have been devastating.

And so, it wasn’t.


Even if we’re not trying to manage a debilitating loss on top of the commercialism and crowds and obligations, the holidays can be stressful. Consider these:

Take a walk. Intentionally notice the beauty in the sights, sounds, and scents.

Make a ‘Deposit Here’ box. Label a decorative box: “Things I will get to, but not this season.” Write down all that weighs heavily upon you. Deposit the slips of paper in the box instead of carrying the weight around.

Keep a journal through the holidays. Record your fears and frustrations, your hopes and joys.

My holiday wish list

A friend whose husband died when her children were young, shared something her daughter said before leaving for college: “When dad died it was really horrible … but I like who I became.”

Which brings us to my Christmas wish list:

May your losses—poor health, financial reversals, a broken relationship, the death of an irreplaceable loved one—shape you into someone you like, someone even more beautiful than you already are.

May we never stop counting what remains after the dust settles.

May unimaginable peace shower down all around you.

This piece is a condensed version of an eBook posted to Renew | Repurpose December 2017.


A love letter not sent


8 gifts to give yourself this year


  1. Great suggestions, Marlys. This is a tough time of year for anyone who has lost a loved one.

  2. Comforting and encouraging words, Marlys. I’d love to share them on my blog. Would that be okay with you? Maybe over two Wednesdays?

    • Yes, of course, Julie. I would be honored if you shared this piece on your blog. Thank you! And please feel free to edit it to fit the audience, if needed.

  3. Nasus

    Marlys, you are a delightful Christmas gift, yourself, the way you share your story, straight from your heart, and with much encouragement, love and blessings! I thank Jesus for you and thank you for your steadfastness, even when the topic or memories are mixed with your own loss! Merry Christmas, Sweet Friend! May God bless you abundantly!

  4. This is a wonderful write, Marlys. You conveyed that it’s ok to not be the hectic Christmas elf; take a year off if you want to. I lost my Step-Father this past April and I thought Thanksgiving would be awful. I still missed him, but my eldest cousin, who moved back to the area after the death of his wife came to dinner and sat in my Step-Father’s chair. When you wrote about the woman’s whose late husband’s co-worker encouraged her to dress and spend the holiday with them, I wonder if something was lacking in their holiday? When my cousin, Eugene thanked me many times for inviting him to dinner, I told him that I should be thanking him because he took the edge off of the sadness of not having my Step-Father at the table. And so, this holiday is a “tabula rasa” as with every passing of a loved one. We have to keep re-inventing to help ease the sadness……reinvent but never forget. Have a blessed holiday Marlys.

    • Wow, beautifully said, Marcia: “We have to keep re-inventing to help ease the sadness … reinvent but never forget.” Wishing you holiday blessings.

  5. leanne

    Happy Holidays! You continue to be a beacon of positive inspiration to all of us. It’s comforting to know that you and Barbara will be all cozy together for Christmas. I miss you and the gang. xo Leanne

  6. Karen Larson

    Marlys, Loved what you wrote. The holidays can be so hard when one is experiencing grief while looking at families who seem “normal” making all of their fun plans. If a person is alone they have to find a way to be creative so that sadness doesn’t overtake them. Thanks for all of your wonderful ideas. There is always a way to turn things around in order to be positive, isn’t there?

    • Well said, Karen: “If a person is alone they have to find a way to be creative so that sadness doesn’t overtake them.” There’s a call to action for us, isn’t there? Instead of sitting back and hoping others will reach out to us in our aloneness, we can choose to take action.

  7. God bless your kindness. Yes, many thoughts can pull us down at a time of joyful family love at Christmas. The lonely who are by themselves and hear the Christmas fellowship around them. The mentally ill who feel forsaken and the homeless who wander in the elements.
    However, besides this, we much appreciate and be positive, while helping others when possible. Blessings .

    • That’s the balance, isn’t it: the appreciation of what we have and the compassionate eyes to be able to see what others don’t have and to make a difference for them in our own small way. Well said, Sister Crystal Mary.

  8. Loretta

    My husband Mike had a major heart attack last Monday. It was miraculous that he survived after two surgeries to save his life. We are out of town and so lost without the comfort and security of being home.
    After a week of gratefulness mixed with how our lives are now changed forever and the fear
    of the future probabilities of maybe almost a full recovery or another corinary you remain in my mind the strongest, most elegantly communitive woman of shared insight, your feelings and phases of the loss of your beloved Gary.
    You are an amazing writer and your insight and reflections you share are so appreciated and educational, and heart felt.m
    Gary must be so very proud of you, your strength, love and gracefulness.
    Hope your celebration of Jesus Christ our Lord and savior’s birth is lined with love, joy and happiness, what ever you do or wherever you are this season.

    • Oh, Loretta. I can imagine your anxiety, compounded by not being in the comfort and familiarity of home during this scary time. Please know that my prayers will cover you and Mike on his recovery journey. Blessings to you in this holy season (and thank you for your kind words).

  9. Marcelle

    Love your thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2024 Marlys Johnson