When Nothing is the Same: Managing Grief and Loss During the Holidays

It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday!

I love birthdays. I love hanging streamers from the kiddo’s doorframes to greet them on their birthday morning. I love celebrating my friends and students on their birthday. I love obnoxiously saying, “It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday! It’s my birthday!” all. day. long.

Fifteen years ago, however, my birthday was in danger. My husband had passed away suddenly just one week before and I was in a raging internal battle with him about how could he go and leave us like that…at Christmas? And miss MY BIRTHDAY?!

This was just the beginning of many harsh realizations that nothing was ever going to be the same. But—as I would discover over time—that didn’t mean it couldn’t still be special in its own new way.

That night, my girls SHOWED UP for a birthday dinner at Macaroni Grill. Looking back, it reminds me of the scene from one of my favorite movies, Elizabethtown, when Drew, just after his dad’s sudden passing, is greeted by his cousin upon his arrival to the jam-packed family home. His cousin bear hugs him and declares: “This loss will be met by a hurricane of love.” And, just like in the movie, the whole evening celebration was surreal; awkward and overwhelming and wonderful.

For the first few years after Kevin died, I just couldn’t uphold our family traditions for birthdays and holidays. It was too much for me to do without him. It made him feel more gone.

So, we tried out new traditions. And then, over time, when we were ready, we brought back some of the old traditions that now felt sweeter, and we merged them into our new traditions, gradually creating our own version of normal.

No grief journey is the same, especially when it comes to the holidays. One thing that has helped my family get through is to have a plan. Knowing in advance how we’ll celebrate not only helps lessen the dread of the upcoming day without our loved one, but it actually gives us something to look forward to. People often ask me how we get through it.

Here are some stories from my kids about what works for our family.

December.

December is an especially tough month for us as it includes the anniversary of Kevin’s death, closely followed by “The Hauser Bubble Christmas Kickoff Weekend”, closely followed by my birthday, closely followed by Christmas. Whew. Some years I’ve put up a tree and some I haven’t. Eventually we compromised with a half-size tree that fits the most sentimental ornaments, yet doesn’t overwhelm. We give ourselves grace and do what we can in the moment.

What holds us together in December is serving others. Supporting others as we’ve been supported gets us out of the house and into other people’s lives. It keeps things in perspective and reminds us that we are not the only ones struggling over the holidays. In fact, there are many out there that have it way tougher.

My daughter, Kate:  “Every year growing up, we went to see the Trains at North Park. It’s one of my favorite Christmas memories with my family! As a toddler, Jake was obsessed with “choo choos” and I especially liked the fancy mall. One year after my dad passed away, we made a donation in support of their charity, The Ronald McDonald House, and got to put his name on an “In Memory of” train car that would be part of that year’s holiday exhibition. That train car is now one of our most treasured Christmas decorations that we proudly display on our mantle.”

Valentine’s Day.

My daughter, Kate: “I can’t begin to tell you how much I looked forward to Valentine’s Day every year, the special night that my dad would take me out and spoil me rotten. ME. The eager, talkative daughter, over his WIFE. He would get me “pretty smelly stuff” from Bath & Body Works. The full-size trio. We would dress up, take our ceremonial picture in front of the fireplace, and go out to a fancy dinner! It took me years to fully understand the level of love, dedication, and sacrifice showed – both on his part, and my mom’s. I pray that one day I’ll find a man who will love and dote on his daughter the way my dad loved and doted on me.”

Oh my goodness, that first Valentine’s Day broke my heart into a thousand pieces for my sweet girl. I tried. I bought her the pretty smelly stuff. Full-size trio. But somehow that made things worse. She burst into tears. It seems there’s a limit to what role I can play as both mom and dad to my kids. This tradition we just had to let go. We replaced it with a Papa Murphy’s heart shaped pizza for dinner. Not even a close second, but it works for us.

Kevin’s Birthday, May 13

My son, Jake: “I’ve always had fond memories of my dad’s birthdays, most of them centering around the balloon tradition. Each year we drive to the store and each of us picks out our own “Happy Birthday, Dad!” balloon to carry birthday messages to him in heaven. The message isn’t super complicated, but it means a lot to me because it’s my own little note to my dad. When we’re done, we tie on the notes and release them up to heaven where he can read them. It was always an exciting day, especially when I was younger. As the balloons floated out of sight and away into heaven, I could only wonder what he would think when he read them. Sometimes I even thought that when I joined him up there, he would show them to me. We would read through them together, and he could tell me how much he loved them.”

Mother’s Day

My daughter, Kate:  “I’ve never asked her, but I’ve always thought that this must be the hardest holiday for my mom. My dad always made a big deal out of making her breakfast in bed, bringing her coffee and gifts, and upholding the “No working for mom on Mother’s Day!” tradition. As the oldest child, I felt like it was my duty to keep up that up after he was gone, but it was hard! I was only 10. So that first year, I did the best I could and brought her coffee and toast. Soon, I learned how to make eggs, then I started adding fresh fruit, too. It took years before I was confident enough to make a whole meal. I think I was 15 or 16 when I volunteered to make brunch for my mom and a few of her single mom friends. I don’t think I even made it through one dish before I was on the floor crying because I couldn’t “do it right.” I put so much pressure on myself to get it perfect, just like my Dad did. My mom and her friends came in, picked me up off the floor, and we all hugged and finished making the meal together which turned out to be a really sweet day.”

Father’s Day.

On the first Father’s Day without Kevin, our good friends and neighbors invited us to visit their family farm for the weekend where we were warmly welcomed as special guests. It was such a relief to get out of town and not have to think about cooking or cleaning. There were extra hands to help with the kids who just loved roaming around in the wide-open spaces. On Sunday, instead of going to church, we painted rocks for our daddy garden. I didn’t even realize how much of a ticking time bomb we had avoided until the next year when we went to church on Father’s Day. I drove home with a distraught son in the back seat holding a blank card with a giant tie on the front. After that, we never went to church on Father’s Day. We stayed home and painted rocks instead.

My daughter, Jenna:  “My favorite part of our painting rock tradition is that I can commemorate the year by painting its story onto a stone. It usually takes me a long time to think about what I’m going to paint. How does this reflect what I remember about my dad this year? What do I want him to know about me? One year, I painted a watermelon with the words “I love you, daddy” in calligraphy because I’d recently gotten really good at calligraphy and I thought he’d be proud of me for that. One of the first times I remember painting rocks with my family, Jake painted a great big breakfast for daddy complete with eggs, toast, and coffee. He said that since we always make mom breakfast in bed, why don’t we paint dad a breakfast for Father’s Day? I love going into the back yard, looking through our garden, and seeing the rocks painted with our stories.”

We have loved and lost. We have gotten through it with our faith, our traditions, and with each other. It has not always been easy, yet it has always been a gift worth treasuring.

Alisa Hauser
Alisa’s 15 minutes of fame was as a news reporter just after college. These days, she embraces multiple roles – a mom of three (two teenagers and one who is #adulting), a graduate student at UT Dallas Jindal School of Management, and a freelance writer, editor, and tutor. When she’s not hiding out in the library, you can find her next to a chiminea fire on her back patio. She loves indie movies, eclectic music, random road trips, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, her kids, and her cat Jack Jack (although not necessarily in that order). She grew up as a military brat, residing in four countries and eleven states before settling in the Dallas area. After 20 years here, and with the help of her Aggie daughter, she can seamlessly use “y’all” and “howdy” in a sentence like a true native Texan.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your doing hard things and your doing them extraordinarily well! I love how you take your hard and share them so openly with others, you are a gift!

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