What was once a lavish production for Ma’Ko’Quah and Christopher Jones has evolved into a humble, close-knit Christmas.
“We had two little girls and looked forward to spoiling them at Christmastime,” Ma’Ko’Quah says. “We took them to get Santa pictures every holiday, went and looked at Christmas lights and shopped the blockbuster deals after Thanksgiving.”
All of those cherished rituals shifted in 2008. That September, Jones and her husband lost their third child and first son, 8-month-old Osceola Jones, to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
“After Osceola died, we felt guilty for wanting to be happy during the holidays, and so we refrained from celebrating for about three years,” Ma’Ko’Quah of Kansas says.
Holidays in particular can compound grief over the death of a loved one. “In our society, it’s supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ ” says Catharine MacLaren, a clinical social worker who directs a private mental health practice in Maine. “There is an expectation on some level, whether it’s self-imposed or other-imposed, that we’re joyous and excited and spending time with people.”
Those expectations can amplify the grief. And not everyone processes grief linearly through the five emotional stages neatly outlined in the Kübler-Ross model. In reality, MacLaren says, coping behaviors that may work for some may not work for others. In other words, there’s no “right” or “normal” way to move on from trauma.
But the trappings of holiday tradition should not prevent people from doing what they believe will be helpful and healthy for them, MacLaren says. According to her, patients cope best “when they’ve been really honest with themselves, and they’ve given themselves permission to feel sad, if that happens or whatever they’re going to feel.”
In addition to Ma’Ko’Quah Jones, many of you shared your stories with NPR about how the loss of a loved one has impacted your holiday traditions. For some, that meant sticking with past traditions. Others found comfort in blowing up traditions and adopting new ones. Some sought to leave memory-filled spaces and commemorate the holiday thousands of miles away. We heard about how the deaths of a parent, grandparent, spouse, daughter and sibling disrupted holiday traditions, ranging from Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to Christmas. We’ve included just a handful of those stories in the following vignettes.
“We stripped off the formality and rigidity that made Christmas a chore”
It was Thanksgiving of 2008. Carla Padvoiskis’ father died suddenly and unexpectedly — an immense loss that redefined how her family would acknowledge future holidays. “It was as if the three of us, my sister, mother and I, exchanged some unarticulated but impactful realization that to not spend precious times with those we hold in our hearts is to gamble away the time we have in those relationships,” Padvoiskis says. For her family, that meant an end to structuring precious holiday time around a cast of blood relatives — who, to her, seemed more like a “a gaggle of acquaintances.”
“It was a day of obligatory cheek kisses with distant adults and rowdy children who held labels rather than meaningful roles in my life,” she says. After some honest reflection with her immediate family in the wake of their loss, Padvoiskis says, “We stripped off the formality and rigidity that made Christmas a chore. We engaged in honest reflection and saw life as being too short to not be with the people you love.”
What Padvoiskis considers “family” has expanded, and their loss has drawn those loved ones closer. “I’d like to believe my dad would be proud of his ‘girls.’ Navigating the holidays without him makes each of us more accepting and gracious of each other. Now, our traditions flourish because they are rooted in spending time with the people who we couldn’t bear to miss.”
“I wasn’t even sad that my Pop-Pop was Santa”
Christmas for Jessica Pope was once synonymous with vintage decorations, peanut butter cookies and dinners served at lunchtime. Her grandparents were the glue that held these traditions together. “At times, they were more parents to me than my own parents were,” she says.
“It was the same every year,” she says. “After we were in bed, my grandfather would put presents under the tree. I was about 10 when I first caught him and I wasn’t even sad that my Pop-Pop was Santa. He even started to let me help bring the presents out to keep surprising my younger siblings.”
After spending every holiday with them for 21 years, everything changed on her grandparents’ 60th anniversary. “They were traveling to Florida to catch a cruise. They got into a terrible car accident on the way. While they survived the accident, they were both in critical condition and would never return home. I still have their suitcases.”
Pope, a 21-year-old college student and pregnant with her first child, felt the paralyzing weight of trying to continue her grandparents’ rituals. “I tried my best, but my family was upset. It was easy for them to take their frustrations out on me. My cooking wasn’t theirs. My cookies didn’t taste the same. The pressure was intense, and I always seemed to let them down.”
When Pope, her husband and their two children moved from the Midwest to Seattle, her family had to start our own traditions. “So far the only one we have now is going out for Chinese food on Christmas,” she says. “I feel like I’m in this weird limbo and not really sure what to do. I know we will figure it out eventually, but it’s hard.”
A culinary constant
“Since my mom has passed, it has been a challenge for me to find any joy in the holiday season,” Adam Waugh, 41, says. Before his mom died of cancer last fall, she and Waugh would spend each holiday indulging their shared love of cooking with a feast.
“I am grateful to be alive and am very grateful for the time I got to spend with both of my parents before they passed, but I have very little to celebrate at the moment,” Waugh says. His father died in 2013. Waugh no longer speaks to his sister. He suffers from debilitating cluster migraines that spiraled into six years of opioid addiction. He faces legal and financial troubles.
And, even as he acknowledges the weight of being alone this time of year, he continues to find solace in his culinary skills. “As a chef by trade, I will most likely cook up a meal for Christmas,” he says. As a practicing Buddhist currently living in Traverse City near Lake Michigan, Waugh plans to appreciate his solitude by meditating in nature.
“It is strange to find myself suddenly alone on the holidays, but I know there are people out there in much worse situations than I am in,” he says. “So I do what I can to help those in need at this time of year and to keep an open and peaceful heart.”
“The weight of a generation gone”
Growing up, Alexandra Landers, a granddaughter of immigrants, looked forward to marking Hanukkah with reliably big affairs, held together year-to-year by generations before her.
“My grandfather and great-uncle put on quite the gathering every year,” she recalls. “The entire family came. Gifts seemed to come out of the rafters. It felt so intensely happy.”
But when her grandfather and great-uncle died, she says, “It wasn’t just like people leaving us, but the weight of a generation gone. A way of being.”
From then on, celebrations were left to the younger generations, who weren’t sure how to honor the holidays, though they tried. “The children had grown up, so presents and material joys were harder to come by. Who would host became a burden, less an honor.”
The holiday turned into a source of stress, depression and disconnection for many family members, Landers says. “It hurt. And looking back, that makes sense … it was those great-aunts, uncles, papas, and grandmas who made the holiday authentic, joyful, and celebration of how far our family had come and who we were. That’s a hard thing to get back — if you can at all.”
In recent years, Landers, now 31, has been trying to resurrect the holiday spirit extinguished a decade ago, through studying her culture and reuniting the extended family. “New grandchildren arrived. Some of us (mostly me, I think) took to learning about Judaism in a deeper way. I sought so deeply to reconnect to the people we had lost. We still have parties. I light my own menorah and feel a sense of ease and presence when I do.”
“I get a little more joy back each year,” she says.
“We are pushing out ‘machismo’ “
Abuelita Natalia, a Mexican immigrant and devout Catholic, was the head chef in Lorena Campos’ family, during a Christmas season centered on making tamales. Campos along with her tias (aunts) and primas (cousins) would share the task of preparing the meat, mole, masa and corn husks. “We would have an assembly-line-style tamale-making party, where we would make over 100 tamales and taste-test afterward,” Campos says.
As her grandmother’s health deteriorated, so did her dominant role in the tamale affair. “But her daughters and granddaughters stepped up to share the responsibilities,” Campos says. Since the death of her grandmother, her family has incorporated a few changes. “Over time, we made it more inclusive and made an intentional effort to get the men in the family involved in making our tamales.”
“More and more we are pushing out ‘machismo’ and the idea that only a small group of us take part in this activity. Tamale day is an event where we invite our partners and the great-grandchildren to help out. We share our memories of my Lita, her wisdom and guidance and pray together to honor her blessings.”
“You better believe I’m using those taco holders”
Two years ago, Andrea Hayes and her family were living in Columbus, Ohio, when her mom suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 58. Hayes says she sought counseling to deal with the loss and found it “wonderfully helpful.” Now living in Philadelphia with her husband and toddler Ramsey, she says one way they (including her brother Adam) celebrate and cherish her mom’s memory is by giving a “mom” gift to one another at Christmas.
“For years, we used to moan over the hokey presents she would give us. One year, everyone got taco holders. Another year, was T-shirts with ironic sayings. One year, it was barbecuing meat brands with our name on it, etc. While sweet, they were things you’d never in a million years think to use.”
Hayes says not only do they sorely miss their mom, but they also now miss those fun, thoughtful gifts.
“We try to give each other gifts that would have tickled Mom’s fancy and, in turn, share fun memories and loving thoughts about Mom. Makes it feel like her spirit is still here. And you better believe, I’m using those taco holders and thinking of her.”
“I still love Christmas”
Since he was young, Christmas has always been a special time for Richard Beebe. His wife, Eileen, playfully called him “Father Christmas.” “I was the spouse who had accumulated boxes and boxes of ornaments and holiday decorations over the years.”
From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, the Beebe family celebrated with a nonstop revelry of Christmas cards, an annual holiday party and choral concerts — Richard and his daughter were the singers.
In 2007, many of those cherished traditions came to a halt. Eileen, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer three years earlier, died that May.
Over the next six years, Beebe says, he and his 14-year-old daughter, Meghan, struggled with their loss. “I struggled with depression while trying to figure out (not always successfully) how to be a single parent; Meghan had to come to terms with the loss of her mother while facing the challenges of being a teenager and dealing with her emotionally struggling father.”
Six years later, Beebe’s life turned upside down once again. On Dec. 28, 2013, Meghan was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Greenwich, Conn.
Even through immense tragedy, Beebe’s love of Christmas survives. “I still love Christmas,” he says. “I still love the spirit of the season, the music, I still love shopping for gifts for family and friends.”
It’s easier on Beebe to stow away his boxes of Christmas decorations in the basement. But he still sings Christmas carols at the school where he works and listens to Meghan’s old choir.
“On Christmas Eve, after Mass and dinner with friends, I go to the cemetery, place two lighted lanterns on their graves and spend a few quiet minutes in the presence of their memories,” he says. And, just as he did when his wife and daughter were with him, he’ll head to Albany, N.Y., on Christmas Day to be with Eileen’s family.
An immortal reading list
In 2010, Sonia Ha lost her 41-year-old husband to pancreatic cancer when their daughter Sophie was 2 1/2 years old. “A college professor, theologian and brilliant thinker,” Sonia says, “I always knew he would be the one to guide our child’s mind and recommend books as she grew.”
After his death, the California resident says, “We were forever changed.” Still, her prediction held true. In his final months after the diagnosis, Sonia’s husband had created a reading list to leave with Sophia. “Every Christmas she receives a book from Daddy.” This year, 11-year-old Sophie will be gifted Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“Mele Kalikimaka me ka hauʻoli makahiki hou!”
One Christmas 11 years ago, Bahby Banks dropped her mother off at the airport. The following day, Bahby says, her mother stopped breathing. At every family gathering, Dorothy Banks’ never failed to entertain, with her signature dancing, singing and tap dancing, to the Motown Christmas CD on replay.
“Christmas was no different. My mother made the holidays,” Bahby of North Carolina says. As she got older, her mom’s house looked more and more like Santa’s workshop — “Mr. and Mr. Claus welcoming guests in the foyer, saxophone-playing Santa placed on the counter, star-lit reindeer placed on the front lawn.”
“She’d make sure that everyone saw her newest holiday figurine and encouraged them to dance and sing along with her. This never got old — she’d always find some way to make us laugh.”
Bahby had a favorite: a talking, interactive globe that translated “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” into different languages. “I don’t know what my mother’s obsession was with Hawaii, but she would tap the little stylus on the tip of the island as it said, ‘Mele Kalikimaka me ka hauʻoli makahiki hou!’ She would quickly repeat the phrase and laugh, clap and sing. She would then invite others to do the same — to no avail.”
When her mother died, Banks says, she was “overwhelmed with creating new traditions and adjusting to what I should be doing to honor my mother.”
“It’s taken quite some time, but I decided the best tradition to honor my mother is to celebrate life and do what brings me peace. This may vary from year to year and that’s okay! I may spend a holiday by myself, or join a friend’s family, or spend time with my mother’s family.”
Banks can’t wait to create new memories with her own family. Until then, her Christmas has two constants: music and the globe — “I searched and searched for until I found it on eBay.”
Creating one’s own definition of the “holiday spirit”
Despite the pain of loss detailed in the stories submitted by our readers, a theme of hope manages to spring from each account, with each writer determined to create his or her own definition of “holiday spirit.”
For the Jones family, it has now been 10 years since their son, Osceola, died.
Ultimately, accepting the authenticity of each family members’ varying emotions is what allowed them to move forward, Ma’Ko’Quah says. But it wasn’t easy. “This was difficult for our Native American family because our culture teaches us not to speak of the dead for fear of keeping their spirit around,” she says.
Following cultural obligation around the holidays can comfort many, clinical social worker Catharine MacLaren says. But for the Joneses, abandoning such beliefs surrounding death ended up being more constructive. “The best advice we were given was to be open and honest the death of our baby, to not be afraid to talk about him or talk openly about his death … even in front of our young daughters.”
When they were younger, Jones says, her young daughters found an open way to cope, playing “little doll games where the baby died and the mommy and daddy was very sad. The counselors said this was normal and healthy and it allowed them to express their feelings without knowing it.”
This Christmas, as with every Christmas since the death of Osceola, the Joneses will sing ” ‘Tis A Gift” (“Simple Gifts”) in honor of their “baby guy.”
“I believe we sing it in honor of my first son that we believe looks down over us during this time and makes sure that we are appreciating one another,” Christopher Jones says.
NPR’s Cameron Jenkins contributed to this story.