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A Look Inside Christmas as a Widower

A picture of myself, my late wife, and our daughters with Santa on Christmas 2003.
My family together on Christmas 2003

Amy, my late wife, loved everything about Christmas. She would shop for presents all year long and hide them in her closet. She also bought ornaments throughout the year, to the point where our house rivaled Harrods or Harvey Nichols.

She died on November 5, 2004 - the day of my daughter's 3rd birthday party - so Christmas was just around the corner. When she died, I found myself in survivor mode.

I had all I could handle working, raising two young children, cooking (poorly), cleaning (poorly), and trying to figure out how not to turn everything pink in the laundry. By the time my head hit the pillow at night, I was exhausted. I fell asleep on my children's bed more than once with a book in my hand. Maybe it was intentional, but there was little room left to mourn or cry.

Thankfully, Amy had completed a lot of the Christmas shopping long before she died, but of course, it being my first Christmas on my own, I felt like I should do more. One crisp December afternoon, I wandered into the local toy store with a list of items to get for each girl: dolls for Elyse and games for Lexi. After grabbing a shopping cart, I looked at the list and walked to the store's far end to wander the aisles.

As I took a left and found myself in a quiet part of the store, I froze. I didn't know at the time what a panic attack was, but it turns out I was having one right there, in aisle ten. People were so busy looking at the various items that they never realized I was still standing among them like a statue. And then I heard a little girl's voice, "Mommy, I like that doll. She's pretty." I snapped out of it, but my heart was racing, and I was sweating like I had just finished a race, but I had barely moved an inch. I finally picked out some presents, bought wrapping paper, and found my way home -- my thoughts lost in what had happened at the store. I was confused and embarrassed.

At the time, my girls were 3 and 5 and big believers in Santa, which just meant that I needed to pull an all-nighter on Christmas Eve because I was terrible at wrapping presents. That fact would be noted by my daughter on Christmas morning (Daddy, Santa's elves must have been in a hurry when they were wrapping…." Well, Santa does have a lot of presents to wrap, I'd reply…) Christmas Day came, and my girls raced down the stairs to see a bounty of presents under the tree. They were mesmerized. It was pure joy, and I was so happy for them. They were so in the moment, and I was so out of it. I sat there, watching them and keeping an equal eye on a picture of Amy that sat nearby.

I felt like I was moving through quicksand that day. Every single effort took labor. I was exhausted, depressed, and deeply missing my wife. Around 10 am, after breakfast, I sat at the table thinking: how will I get through the rest of this day?

I didn't have plans to see anyone (probably a mistake) because I didn't feel like celebrating that year or having to pretend that I was happy. I didn't want to burden anyone with my grief, which, in retrospect, was admirable but stupid. I picked up the newspaper, which lay nearby, flipped a few pages, and the solution was literally right in front of my eyes: the movies. The kids played for a couple of hours, I drank copious amounts of coffee, and then we headed out to see The Polar Express. We were literally the only people in the movie theater - not too many want to see a Christmas movie on Christmas Day, I suppose. The girls were enthralled. Having a chance to sit down, still, for a couple of hours — really for the first time since Amy died — the emotion just started coming out. There was nothing I could do. I sat there as the kids smiled with joy, trying to hide the tears pouring down my face. I kept turning my head away from the girls so they wouldn't see me.

I wish I could describe what I was feeling, but there's a space before words where the deepest wells of grief lay still until the well pours open. Grief finds you in the strangest places, and here it was, in a dark movie theater on Christmas Day. We all have our firsts - first holiday, first birthday — the "firsts" are indeed very hard to endure, but the thing to remember is that grief isn't linear.

18 years later, I still miss Amy, especially at Christmas. The feelings, at times, are as raw as they were on that first Christmas, but at some point, the memories of how much I loved her are present, and they help temper that pain. And that's one of the things that drew me to our work here at Elizabeth's Smile - to guide people through their own unique grief journey so that grief isn't disabling, so we can learn that love and loss can sit hand in hand, whether one is in a movie theater in America, or in a quiet street in suburban London. I am so grateful that we're developing a series of Grief Guides to help people understand grief better and learn how they can be supportive. I wish I had these guides for my friends and family decades ago, and I also wish I had the benefit of learning from others whose spouses died. Grief is something we have to go through on our own, but it doesn't mean we have to be alone.

As one who has been there, whether it's a first Christmas alone or decades later, my advice to you is: lean in.

If you are a surviving spouse like me, lean into the help people want to provide

If you are a friend or family member, lean in - offer more than thoughts and prayers - perhaps a hug, a surprise gift for the surviving parent, or maybe most of all, your presence.

That can sometimes be the greatest gift we can give each other during the holidays.

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