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For some of you reading, this may be the first Christmas without your loved one. For me, it’s the first without my almost-seventeen cocker spaniel, Chaeli. It’s the 7th without my mama, and the 10th without my dad. It’s the 8th without my husband.

The holidays give us reason to pull up those special memories of loved ones, scroll them in our minds, maybe feel the stream of a tear running down our cheek. After some time and some padding that accumulates between the loss and the present, we genuinely smile and laugh at things our loved ones did at this time of the year. From the earliest time I can remember, my dad was under the tree with my sister and me. He’d play with each toy one by one, even the girl toys, and he did the same thing with his four grandchildren. He was always a little over the top with Christmas. It was something that, today, my grown sons would hold out their hands in a “stop” motion and say, “Chill.” But at all ages, I loved it.

dadchristmasWith my mom, it was the Sears Christmas catalog, the day-after-Christmas sales, and the baking–that brownie peppermint pie, the orange toasted pecans, the peanut butter cookies with the Hershey’s kiss on top, and the smells in the kitchen and whole house. It was that aluminum tree with the color wheel she bought and used a few years. It was her singing and tap dancing to Jingle Bell Rock. It was her presence and the happy aura she wore and the way she carefully picked out presents and the way she made everything right and special.

With Charlie, I could always expect sapphires–blue ones, white ones, and even pink ones. And then there was the packing-the-car thing that I still laugh about every year because, as an engineer, he had to get everything in neat, perfect order.

Finding a way to remember our loved ones during this time, no matter how small or simple, is important. With Charlie, it was placing his favorite Tennessee Vols cap on the top of the tree. Below is a passage from Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing, the first Christmas after Charlie died.

December, 2008. Christmas. I drove to Mississippi, just Cory, me, and the dog, to spend Christmas with Todd, his four-months-pregnant-with-twins wife, and my mother. Packing the car was a simple affair this year. It never had been before. Charlie always freaked out about space. “Don’t buy any big gifts!” he’d say. And I always did. “Tell Cory to bring a small suitcase,” he’d say, “and not that big duffel bag.” Cory always brought the big duffel bag. “Everybody out of my way,” he’d say. “I’ve got to figure out how to get all this stuff in the back of the car. It’s way too much. It’ll never fit.” It always did. “It’s packed to the top. I can’t see out the rearview mirror,” he’d say about the cargo area of the Rodeo and then the Subaru.

Todd put one of Charlie’s orange UT caps on top of his Christmas tree, as I did with the tree I’d put up at home. It was a way to keep a part of Charlie with us on this first Christmas he wasn’t with us. We found meaning in small acts that kept a memory of him in our daily routine.

I’d decided I wasn’t going to be left out when it came to opening packages, since I didn’t have a husband to buy me anything anymore, so I bought myself two gifts—black fleece pants and a teal fleece shirt from REI in Brentwood. I wrapped them and acted surprised when I opened them. “It’s exactly what I wanted!”

The holidays can bring a sharper pang after loss. Every year, even now, I remember a Christmas season back in the late 80s after my dad had a major heart attack, was life-flighted to Memphis, and had five bypasses. We almost lost him then. It was a scary time for my family. He spent most of the month of December, including Christmas, in the hospital. The most beautiful reminder of “God with us” during that time was the poinsettia tree in the hospital lobby. It was a giant of a shape, and every time I looked at it, I thought, “Emmanuel. God with us.” It helped me get through. I gave my mother a little silver cross to put in her pocket, and she never let go of it. We all find our ways to cope.

Poinsettia-tree-frame-SmallAnyone now with fresh loss, it is helpful to find that poinsettia tree or pocket cross or whatever item reminds you of hope and light and hold fast to it. It also helps to find some specific way to honor your loved one, even if it is a team ball cap on top of a Christmas tree. And above all, don’t let yourself get caught without a gift under the tree. Go buy one for yourself if you have to. It’s that important. It’s not a material thing; it’s making up for not having that one person there who made you feel special and loved and provided for and always saw that you got what you needed and wanted.

Take care of you.

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