Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | December 3, 2011

A repost from 2010: Candle Against the Dark

It’s December again. Reminders to gird our loins against the impending holiday season are crossing my inbox and my mailbox, more every day, as if any of us needed reminding. Along with the ads for cozy slippers, wholesome toys, and fancy foods, along with the Amazon updates and L.L.Bean catalogs come newsletters from the cancer center, our local hospice, grief support groups. Perhaps these are atypical sources for all but the widowed, but pick up instead any magazine with a wreath or a turkey on the cover. The attitude and advice towards the holidays is the same regardless of its origin. Simplify.

The bereavement counselors tread lightly, knowing we are fragile beings. We are gently reminded that the season of light shows our shadows even more deeply. They offer myriad tips to help us cope.  We are advised to do only what we are able and no more. They say:

•Choose those things which bring you joy. Without guilt, jettison the rest. Joy! I am trying, but I’m not alone in feeling that moments of joy are hard to come by lately.

•Make sure to get enough food, water, exercise, and sleep. A little joke, we think, but no, they mean it.

•Take plenty of time for rest and reflection, and let the tears come.

•Attend only the gatherings you would truly enjoy, and stay for only as long as you like, maybe just a few minutes. Don’t allow yourself to be forced into painful situations to please the well-intentioned.

•Choose a gift in the name of our loved one, for yourself or for a charity.

•Attend a “Blue Christmas” service or memorial for those we’ve lost. There at least I would know I am not the only broken one. There I would not have to pretend to be whole, or at least mended.

•Don’t try to do it all alone. It is ok to need help. Ask for what you need. For many of us this is almost impossible. Especially if some time has passed and our companions have returned to their own complete lives, we don’t want to be a burden or a bummer, and we may not even want the company.

•Light a candle in the name of our beloved. I wish I thought that would help.

We bereaved discuss the pros and cons of our circumstances: Is it easier or harder to have the distraction of children whose needs must be attended to, who get you up out of bed every day?

Is it preferable to have ample time to call our own, or to have work which tethers you to the real world?

Do you throw yourself into food, drink, work, exercise, a frenzy of organizing or socializing? Or are you one who withdraws from friends, doesn’t eat, drinks too much wine,  spends too many hours alone at the computer or staring into space? And which of these is more damaging?

Do we put up a tree and decorate the house as if everything was the same as before, or sit in darkness because we just cannot share in the joyfulness of the season?

Does having a few moments of fun mean we are recovering, or repressing, or most unthinkable of all, forgetting?

It hardly matters what we think, as our opinions change our situation not a bit. It’s Christmas regardless of how we feel about it. We have lived through our own personal Dresdens, but after some months we must appear to walk through the day like a normal person. Friends and family grow weary of our pain which they cannot assuage. Outward evidence of our inward devastation is not so obvious, after a while. A faraway look in the eye may be the only clue. Or you may look over and see one of us crying randomly at a traffic stop, or sitting at a green light a moment too long, lost in thought.

Christmas has become such a stressful, emotionally charged period in this country, in this era.  ”The holiday season” for many has come to mean a month or more of planning and parties and presents, with all that cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping, delivering and mailing, after making sure no one is left off the list. I know some folks who worry about bestowing the proper obligatory gift upon people whose names they do not even know!

This season was not always so fraught with stress and drama of our own making. The solstice celebration was born as a simple acknowledgement of the inevitable, frightening, chilling darkness and the hope of light and warmth returning, ever so slowly, as the earth turns inexorably on its axis, as it has always done, with or without us. The age-old symbolism of evergreens, candles, wreaths and gifts could hardly be clearer, and yet has become so muddled to us. In other countries and at other times, the holidays assume a slower pace, an acknowledgement of family and food and gifts to be sure, but not this mad rush of all-encompassing shopping requiring frantic days and exhausted nights. Maybe seasonal decorations are locally gathered cones and branches, not bright ribbons and glittery accents from China. Christmas might mean it is time to slow down to contemplate joy, peace, and well-wishing, not to be compelled ever onward into another store.

(What Would Jesus Do? Not this, I’m pretty sure.)

For me, alone in the house, my husband gone for the second of many Christmases to come, and my woman-child making her way in the world, I have the so-called luxury of building this year’s Christmas to fit my mood. I’ll ignore most traditions and minimize the rest. The house will have evergreens of some kind for their essential fresh greenness and fragrance. There will be a very few gifts, mostly homemade, because this year it’s important to use my hands. For the first time in a long time, I’ll put up some tiny white lights somewhere, with a nod to the fact that my darling always preferred the colored ones. I will light a few candles, maybe, after all. Beyond that I do not know yet what this Christmas will bring. It feels necessary to accept, if not embrace, this new reality of a solitary life.

Ask for what you need, they say.

If only I knew what that might be.

I bid you the peace of the season where you can find it.



  1. Your posts always touch my heart, but this one in particular really hits home. This is my first Christmas without Rick (51). It will be 9 month’s on the 11 of December.

    I don’t really know how I will feel, but I do know that as the holidays are looming, I feel the anxiety building. I have 2 children 19 and 22 and although they are grown, I still feel responsible for “making a Christmas” for them. We live in Canada and it is very much the same as the States in that the hype, buildup and shopping frenzy that accompanies Christmas is enough to make anyone shake their head.

    My first foray into how hard this is going to be, came the other night when I was wrapping a gifts for my sisters family (they live out west and their gifts had to be sent early) instead of what came naturally: Love Rick and Michele; how bizarre it was that I had to write Love Michele. I totally lost it – I literally had to leave the house and go grab a coffee and just sit and let it sink in . It was devastating to me. What people don’t realize eh?

    My family and friends want to “fill up my days”, with get togethers and pot lucks, and quite frankly all I want to do is disappear until the whole thing is over.

    I will continue to be strong and I’ll probably pull off Christmas for the kids and Rick’s family. I always feel like I have to make things better for everyone. I have people saying – well at least this will be the last big “first” you have to go through??? So many think that once you’ve been through a first – it’s better next time round. And just because you’ve learned to function in public – they think you’ve dealt with everything and are “getting over it”. They couldn’t be more wrong – the anger stage has just hit me this past week.

    Anyway – just venting a bit – sorry. I guess I’m too polite and just don’t want anyone feeling as bad as I do, so I overcompensate. I have to learn to be a little more selfish, do what is right for me and take one breath at a time.
    Thanks again for your honesty when you write – I look forward to reading your posts. I feel a little less crazy when I know that I’m not the only one out here feeling this way.


    • M- so glad you wrote. So glad to hear that this meant something to you; I feel quite different now, more at peace than last year at this time when I wrote it, so the fact that it touched you means the world to me and makes me happy I put it back out there. First Christmas –the worst! SO hard, and people just. Do. Not. Get. It. How could they, really? Signing just your name on the cards – what a concrete symbol of how horrible this loss is. Brought tears to my eyes. I won’t add to the people giving you advice; sounds like you’ve got it down: “Do what is right for me and take one breath at a time”. Only thing we can do, really. Only way out is through. Love.


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