12/24/2010 07:19 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mourning During the Holidays: One Woman's Solution

Many people have brought up the issue of coping with holidays (and anniversaries, birthdays, etc.) after the loss of a loved one. Many of them expressed the belief that it is the first of these that are the most difficult, and that it gets easier from there; others, however, say that holidays, birthdays and other special occasions continue to present a challenge to them even after many years have passed. Consider Betsy's story and what we can learn from it:

J.A. always said you had to play the hand you were dealt, and that attitude sort of rubbed off on me. J.A. was a scientist, and he dealt with his cancer on a scientific basis, seriously looking for a solution; he wanted to live. We attended two conferences together and planned to attend a third, but he had another recurrence. He also read every journal and checked the Internet. He read about a new treatment that might have saved him had it appeared at the beginning of his illness instead of the end. He was not eligible for the trial at that point. But he played the hand he was dealt.

J.A. has been gone 11 years. It helps me now to put flowers on his grave, though it is still hard. It also helps me to spend time remembering, looking at pictures, reading letters and poems that we shared on our special days. I do whatever I have to with the world on the day he died, our wedding anniversary, his birthday and the big holidays, but I always set aside time to share with him. He appeared in my dreams the other night, showing me the way back to my hotel when I was lost... It was lovely.

I still, after 11 years, feel that I needed to mourn openly more than I did at the time. Since I couldn't cry but could proceed with the business of two estates that were involved (J.A.'s father had died six months earlier), I guess that was the only way for me. Actually, I think you could say that I went on "Automatic pilot." I was a woman of the generation for whom Jackie Kennedy and her demeanor during the funeral of her slain husband was my role model.

Two things strike me about Betsy's story, and they are themes I have read and heard from others. The first is that while grief may ebb and flow, we should not expect it to disappear. While initial anniversaries, holidays, and the like may be more intense, for most people the absence of a loved one at these times is always in our consciousness. To this day, for example, I think of my grandfather every Christmas Eve, which was when he passed away some 40 years ago. My mourning does not preclude my enjoyment of Christmas, but it is there, and I've come to accept its presence.

The second thing that so impressed me about Betsy's story is how although she "did whatever she had to with the world" on these special occasions, she also set aside some time to be alone with her beloved J.A. I like that sense of balance. Again, it tells me that mourning and celebration need not preclude one another, but can co-exist side by side.

Betsy made clear to me that she was not "giving advice." Still, I hope some readers will find her story as comforting to them as it is for me.