Surviving the Holidays

by Peggy Sweeney

I wish you could have known my dad. He was a great man; kind, gentle, compassionate, loving. He taught me to enjoy all the good things in life and to believe in the magic of Christmas and the wonders of Santa Clause. I guess that’s why I am one of the oldest kids who still believes that Santa travels on a sleigh and brings presents.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Christmas was always the best time of the year! Daddy would take my little brother, sister, and me to pick out the traditional Christmas tree. Every year the tree seemed bigger and better than ever before. We would return home boasting of our find and mom would stand at the front door shaking her head and stating—with a grin—that we would never get that tree through the door. She would, no doubt, be vacuuming pine needles until at least April or May.

Dad would put the lights on the tree. Mom and the kids would decorate it with ornaments that we had made or collected over the years. Daddy would spend hours and hours putting tinsel on the tree—one strand at a time. I, on the other hand, would become bored within minutes of starting this task and toss my wad of tinsel into the tree. I later realized that patience was one of his best virtues.

The Sweeney Clan

When dad was satisfied with his job, he would announce that he was finished. That was my cue. I would race through the house summoning my mom and siblings to come and see the tree in its glorious splendor. Every light in the house would be extinguished except for those on the tree. We would sit on the couch all snuggled together and “ooh” and “aah” at how great the tree looked. Mom would even admit that it was the prettiest ever. A hush would settle over our little family and dad would quietly tell us, “always remember, this is Christmas.”

Thirty-six years after his death, I still miss my daddy very much especially during the holiday season. He is no longer here to share in family traditions. Certain Christmas carols make me melancholy. I miss the happy times our family shared together with him. I feel cheated that my children never knew the warmth and love their grandfather so easily gave. I wish he were here to hang the tinsel, snuggle and cuddle, and make Christmas as it once was years ago.

The holiday season for many of us is not always a happy and joyful time as the television and radio commercials would want us to believe. The Christmas season may cause stress and anxiety. In addition to our busy lives, we must add to this all the preparation needed to make this time of year “a success”. Even with all the bright lights and music, it can be a very painful time for families who have experienced a traumatic event over the past year. It is not unusual for them to be reluctant to participate in the festivities. If you are having trouble coping because someone you love has died, I offer the following suggestions.

I encourage you to have a family meeting now to discuss what traditions need to remain in place and which ones need to be altered. You may wish to add something new this year. You don’t have to put up a tree, send Christmas cards, or have an elaborate family dinner. If you choose to exchange gifts, do not hesitate to seek the aid of friends to do your shopping or, better yet, order your gifts from catalogs or online.

To help ease the pain of your grief, set aside a special place in your home to honor the person who has died. Display their picture or create a memory album with pictures and memorabilia of their life. Make a wall hanging or small quilt using pieces of their clothing. Buy a special candle and light it in memory of them. Do something—a charitable contribution, flowers for your church, buying food or clothing for someone less fortunate—in memory of your loved one

If you decide to have a special family dinner, you may want to set a place at the table in honor of the deceased person. Before you begin your meal, ask everyone to share a memory of this loved one. Give yourself permission to cry and laugh. It is okay to cancel the holidays this year if you so desire. Everyone needs to decide what’s important for them and the best ways to cope with the upcoming holiday season. Remember that everyone grieves in their own way. What works for one person may not be the answer for someone else. It is imperative to start making your plans now.

If there are young children in the family, they will need to experience the fun of the holidays even though they are grieving. Seek the help of friends and family members to assist you in providing the necessary magical happiness that can be outlets for their young grief.

Over the years, I have learned what my dad really meant when he said, “this is Christmas.” As a child, I thought he meant how the lights on the tree appeared to glow as we sat in the darkened room or that the tree was beautiful even though it was bare in places and the trunk was not straight. What daddy really taught me was that Christmas isn’t trees with colorful lights and tinsel or shopping ’til you’ve dropped or brightly wrapped presents. Christmas is love and caring. Christmas is the warmth of family and friends as they gather to share life and laughter. Christmas is caring for those less fortunate. Christmas is tears and precious memories of times gone by. Christmas is wishes and prayers, sadness and joy. Christmas is hope. May your holiday season by filled with much love and many warm hugs.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney.

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is a mortician (retired), bereavement educator and the president of The Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught countless workshops about coping with grief and trauma, including How to Understand Grief Seminars (HUGS) and the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. She has written numerous award-winning articles and is the editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. Peggy is a former member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department and a former EMT-B. You may contact Peggy at