Home > Communication, Death, Family, Health, Love, Relationships > On casting light and Christmas without her

On casting light and Christmas without her

On our first Christmas without her, one last Christmas tree at her house

On my first Christmas without Mom, one last Christmas tree at her house

I wrote “On your first Christmas without her” for a friend last year.

I was surprised when that post started turning up in searches more than a month ago. But Christmas is so far away!

As Christmas draws nearer, more and more people find that post with search terms like “first christmas without my mom” and “christmas without mom.” I’m no longer surprised that they’re searching now or that they were searching then, because … of course. This is the time of year when the resounding push toward collective joy can actually enhance the sense of isolation in grieving:

There they all are going about life as usual, expecting life to go on as usual, and here I am with no idea what “as usual” means anymore. 

I wrote last year’s post after a conversation with my then four-year-old son. This year, I see those search terms as the start of another conversation worth having a little earlier.

I’ve thought about grief a lot more since then. When my husband’s friend lost her baby a month ago, I thought about how people sometimes disappear from grievers’ lives after they realize they can’t fix grief. More than that, I thought about why. I finally understood that when people disappear during other’s grief, it usually reflects not callousness but a sense of powerlessness:

This grief is stronger than me. I am powerless to fix it, which means I am useless to my friend.

For those grieving, I encouraged embracing grief as a necessary part of healing. For those witnessing loved ones’ grief, I advocated for shining light over fixing grief. I want to affirm these points now.

If someone is grieving this holiday season, I would lovingly ask you to let them grieve. Let them know, in words or quiet presence, that you are there for them and will be there for them no matter what. That you have no demands for how they express their grief or how quickly grief should be on its way. Consider sharing a cherished memory or asking them to share their own memories of their departed loved ones; though it can feel awkward doing so, it’s a way of saying you remember, too. It’s an affirmation that the beloved departed continues on in memory, in love, and in the traditions they helped build. It’s a way of making space for them not only in one person’s fumbling steps toward a new “as usual” but outwardly, for everyone that person touched.

If you are grieving, know you are doing exactly what you need to. There’s no right or wrong way, hence no need for guilt about how inconvenient or long or loud or anything it is. Facing it–even embracing its necessity, if you can–is how you will eventually shift away from remembering your beloved departed’s loss to being present in life. If you feel compelled to act, do some small thing you loved doing with that person and feel the closeness to them in it. Give time, money or loving action in their honor. Consider writing them a letter.

Indeed, after years of writing about my mom on our shared birthday, this year I finally wrote a letter to her. She was alive to me as I wrote, and I knew I’d write her again to cherish that feeling of reaching her.

One of my favorite things about the Christmas season here is its lights. As the darkness outside grows, we not only turn on lights inside our own homes but also string up lights outside them for passersby. It’s a beautiful affirmation that we’re connected, that we do have some power to take the edge off of darkness. Sure, the lights can only be seen with eyes lifted upward, but the fact some eyes are downcast doesn’t mean we should take down our outside lights. It means it’s more important to keep them on in the darkness, so that they’re up and shining light, shining connection, whenever those eyes do lift briefly from the concrete below.

I conclude now as I concluded last month, with heart resolved to cast light (some of which is my mom’s refracted):

The light doesn’t fix grief, no, but when finally seen is an important reminder that there is more than loss to life. That, though some we love have died and can never, ever be replaced, others remain to cherish and be cherished. To be OK with not fixing, just as long as they can be with.

bad d xmas


  1. December 13, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Lovely post. This is always a difficult time of year for anyone who is lonely or grieving. It’s hard to pretend to be jolly because everyone else is. There is so much value in allowing people their feelings, while “shining light”

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:03 am

      Thanks, Lisa. I’ve “known” for years that this time of year is hard for many, but for some reason … I failed to get it until this year. Oy.

  2. December 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

    You are such a beautiful writer. A wonderful, thoughtful post. Being there for people, just simply being there allowing them to grieve, to let them feel what they need to feel and heal on their own terms, is the best and really the only thing you can offer.

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:04 am

      Thank you so much. I so want to believe I can fix anything and everything, but really … there is only so much any one person can do, beyond listen and love.

  3. December 13, 2014 at 9:55 am

    A beautiful post. One of many. Thank you.
    This, the happiest season of them all, is fraught with pain for so many people, for so many reasons.
    Knowing this, I am delaying my celebrations this year and spending Christmas morning on the crisis line. I hope that the caring that I and all the other volunteers offer provides a small light. A warm light.

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:09 am

      I am considering what to do with Li’l D so he can be a light, as you are. (Beautiful. ♥) My mom used to take me to nursing homes. I am thinking of doing that this year. It’s a small thing, but small acts can have big impacts … as my remembering this all these years later reminds me.

  4. December 13, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I lost my mother on Christmas Day in 2010. I retired from being a funeral director/mortician this past year. I could have written this post of yours. It struck a cord with me. You have the insight of a funeral director.

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:13 am

      I’ve become increasingly interested in healing the last year or two. Some years ago, I thought I might pursue medicine with that objective. Now, I find a special interest in healing related to grief and grieving, and so … your comment? Thank you. So much.

  5. December 13, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thankyou Deborah.
    Grief is indeed part of the journey we are on. It is un-avoidable and can be as devastating as it can be wondrous.
    The sense of place that comes with grieving and the humility that befriends it, offer up learnings about oneself (and others) that can only be touched under such dramatic changes in one’s life.
    It can be interpreted badly to say ‘Embrace and enjoy your grief’ as it suggests a lack of sensitivity and understanding. But I contend that grief is a special part of living that is the gift we are presented, when situations confront us.
    Grief hurts like hell and can be debilitating in the extreme, but it does gradually lift.
    Deborah, you have documented your journey un-selfishly and left yourself ‘out there’ so you are to be commended. Your journey will have given much hope to many as they read about the way by which you have structured your own grief and combined that with the bringing up of a young family – not an easy thing.
    May Christmas for you be one of special memories and family fun.B

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:24 am

      Embrace and enjoy your grief

      This differs a little from what I wrote, which is: even embracing [grief’s] necessity, if you can

      I don’t think grief can usually be enjoyed, but I think a certain perspective lends to understanding its necessity. After my own mom died, I HATED death. I was enraged by it. I said no, no, no to it, and was frustrated by how little it cared what I said. Saying “no” sapped my time and energy.

      When I read a little book called Just One Thing, it opened me to the idea of saying “yes” to even painful things. It suggested that saying “yes” was a key part of healing and living peacefully within the world as it actually is, instead of wasting so many resources to demanding the unchangeable be changed. I wrote My Manif-YES-to illuminated by this newish understanding.

      This is only a small part of your lovely comment, but significant enough to me to address here. Beyond that, there’s so much to mull over and appreciate–if with little bits of sadness, to which I again say yes–as I find myself grateful to you for sharing your sentiments. I so agree with your conclusion that grief is a special part of living. It’s a reminder to me that the gifts of love and life are so profound as to be worth the sadness of the inevitability that each of us can be here only so long to experience either.

  6. December 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I love this post. A lot.

  7. December 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    This is wonderful. So wise, so kind. So full of grace.

  8. December 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    So beautifully expressed. It is a very reassuring message. I’m not currently grieving, but I am friend to many who are. I think of them in a particular way during the holiday season. Your words move me to remember to let them know that I am thinking of them. Thank you.

  9. December 14, 2014 at 6:44 am

    This is our 2nd Christmas since my baby brother passed, and I said the other day that it will never be the same and I was becoming okay with that!

  10. December 14, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Last year around Christmas time I noticed a cashier at Walmart seemed a bit down. I asked her how she was doing and she informed me her mom and dad had both died within the last three months and one of her friends earlier in the year. I gave her a hug and my condolences. I’m glad it was not busy at the time. I’m hoping I helped in some way. You don’t have to know someone deeply to encourage pr be encouraged by someone.
    After my mom passed away I received a card of condolence from my in-laws next door neighbor. She saw my moms obituary in the newspaper and recognised my name. I didn’t know her very well, but the gesture meant a lot to me. I didn’t receive very many hand written cards which made it even more special. My pastor, her, and my brother and sister in law in montana.

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:38 am

      I saw you’d commented right after parking at Disneyland a couple of days ago. I exclaimed excitedly to Li’l D that you’d commented and posted, which meant I then had to explain blogging a little more in depth to Li’l D. It slipped my mind during the trip, which means I’m glad to know I have a new post from you to read after I post this comment.

      A few of Mom’s old friends reached out to me after I wrote about her here. It was so sweet to receive their condolences and read about Mom through their eyes. (One of them actually told me that Mom had envisioned herself as Thunder Thighs long before we came into this world! I still haven’t sent her proper reply, but oh! How sweet to have affirmed that Mom had those moments as well as all the sad ones.)

      Your Walmart cashier encounter reminds me of something that sticks with me so, so many years later. I was sitting on a curb crying during college when someone walked by, backtracked and asked if there was anything s/he could do to help. I can’t remember the person. I can’t remember why I was crying. I do and will always remember the feeling of that person’s reaching out. It’s what inspired me to backtrack in the encounter I wrote about in Maybe they are just going home. There’s not much we can do in certain cases, but showing that we’re there and would do more if we could … the benefit of that can endure for decades.

    • December 16, 2014 at 3:38 am

      p.s. Love you.

  11. December 15, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Another heartfelt,beautiful post from a thoughtful, loving woman. Merry Christmas, Deborah.

  12. December 16, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    So true, Christmas is such a special family time, that those gaping holes are harder to ignore. Thanks for the reminder to remember those in grief right now.

  13. December 20, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Thank you for sharing your light, spreading it, Deborah. I, too, love the lights of the season and appreciate deeply your insight that they are an affirmation and reflection that we are connected. We help each other. Thank you for your sensitive and thoughtful discussion, which I am even more grateful for as this is my first Christmas without my mom. Peace and love to you and your beautiful family…

  14. December 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    I love how you emphasize the importance of supporting people through grief, and being there for the no matter what. Grief comes in many shapes and sizes and intensities, so we can’t expect everyone to know our understand anyone else’s grief.
    I hope you had a great Christmas – it seems you brought some comfort to many people with this post!

  1. December 30, 2014 at 12:12 pm
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  6. June 15, 2016 at 3:07 pm

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