12/22/2015 08:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Christmas Gift of Grief


Christmas Tree Lighting at our brother's grave -- a new family tradition.

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, right? Well, it often seems just the opposite when you are missing a loved one who has died. Everything around you is a reminder. Sometimes those reminders are tender moments that can bring a sweet smile to your face and a peace & comfort to your heart, while others can have you ugly crying in a department store and leave you feeling sad and blue.

Christmas is about togetherness, family, and traditions that date back to before you were even born. So what happens when there is one less stocking to fill, one less seat at the table on Christmas day and constant reminders that someone is missing from your family -- making traditions both bitter and sweet.


This is the fourth Christmas since our brother died.

This is the fourth Christmas not getting to buy him a gift but seeing so many things in the stores that would make the perfect gift for him. There have been so many times that I've picked things up with the thought he would love it only to put it back because he's gone and I don't get to buy him a gift. And so there you are left standing in the shoe department of Nordstrom with tears running down your face with the realization that you never get to see your brother open a gift from you ever again. You can imagine it but then someone picks up the other shoe and asks the sales clerk to check for a size in stock and reality hits. Tears start to get ugly, people around you are uncomfortable and all you want to do is just buy your brother this pair of ridiculous shoes that you know he would love -- a pair of shoes that only he could pull off and appreciate it. So, you put the shoe back, wipe the tears from your face, and walk away.

And just like that you miss your brother more than ever and that pain that literally takes your breath away has returned and it's as intense as it was the day he died.

Sure, today I have tools, coping skills and the knowledge from experience that I know I will smile and laugh and be happy again, but for a moment (sometimes brief, sometimes not) the pain is suffocating, life's not fair, and finding acceptance is a challenge.

I think about my brother all the time, but there is something about the holidays that seems to put grief on an elevated intensity level. The past couple weeks have been pretty difficult for me (and the people around me, I'm sure). I can feel the pressure from tears just on the other side of my eyes building up from trying to hold them back. I feel like people want to put an expiration date on grief for me like I should be all better now three and a half years later.

Well, that's not been my experience. Grief comes and goes and I by no means have it figured out. It's a no show when I'm expecting it but it shows up in places, and on days, I never saw it coming. Sometimes it's brief and other times it lingers for longer than I would like, but one thing I know is that there is no way to avoid it or pretend it isn't there. It's not the grief I want to avoid; it's the pain that it causes. Trying to avoid the sadness and loneliness only prolongs the grieving process, so I lean into it and get through it.

Will loved Christmas so it's only natural that so much about this season would remind us of our brother and all the memories we shared with him. Will fancied Hickory Farms summer sausage, peanut brittle, and Claxton fruitcake. He was completely anal about lining up the pattern of the wrapping paper on gifts. He liked the song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" and Adam Sandler's "Hanukah Song" and I can still see him singing them with his signature smirk of a smile. He would hide Mrs. Story's homemade cookies and Mrs. Dixon's apple muffins every single year. He favored color lights over white lights no matter how old he got and hated artificial trees. He let our little sister sleep in his room and listen for Santa on Christmas Eve until she got to high school and long after she knew Santa wasn't real. He always "adopted" a kid for Christmas and would obsess over getting exactly what the kid asked for. The year before he died the kid listed he wanted a bike. Will must have called my mom and older brother a dozen times each with questions to make sure he got the perfect bike for this kid and he did. Will was particular and thoughtful and kind.

I don't think grief ever goes away completely and honestly, I don't want it to. No matter how brief grief graces me with her presence, she always leaves my heart a little softer and puts thing in perspective on what's really important. Maybe it's my brother's way of sending us a Christmas gift to remind us that Christmas isn't a season. It's a feeling.

Maybe it's our brother's way of letting us know he is with us. He shows up at the Hickory Farm stand in the mall. He shows up on the radio with Adam Sandler. He shows up with Mrs. Dixon's muffins and Mrs. Story's cookies. He even shows up with a disapproving head shake when I'm wrapping presents that aren't symmetrical or perfect in any way.

So I smile and I cry and I share stories about him. I let grief weave in and out of Christmas and look for acceptance one moment at a time. That kid, my brother, he is so present in my heart that it makes his absence on Christmas morning and little less blue.


This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at