My remarkable mother-in-law, Emma, gave us a wonderful Christmas tradition.

A lifelong knitter, her hands flew all year long. She turned out literally dozens of pairs of colourful striped wool stocks, mitts, head bands, sweaters, slippers. At Christmas we could each count on receiving a sweater in our favourite colour.

But the best part was when she hauled out an enormous bag. The grandchildren would gather on the floor at her feet and she’d shake the contents of the bag into the air. Kids would grab many of the dozens of sets of socks and mitts, selecting for themselves and for each other.

“Karen, this is your colour--take these!” “David, these are huge... they must be for you!”

And Grandma would gleam as she watched the kids enthusiastically receiving the fruits of her labour. It was a tradition started when the second grandchild was born, and the last time Grandma shook the bag of goodies, the grandchildren spanned ages 15 through 23 and they were all still sitting on the floor, hands stretched out to catch their Christmas socks.

And then Emma died. And Christmas wasn’t the same.

Our first Christmas without Emma felt empty. No plastic bag of socks and mittens falling from above. We all sat together in the living room and we all thought about Grandma’s bag of gifts. And we all missed her. And some of us cried. I even considered trying to knit dozens of pairs of socks, and mittens and slippers to keep it going.

But, nothing can prepare you for the emptiness of a missing person at Christmas.

Last Tuesday night, John Saynor spent time with 200 people from Barrie area who have lost loved ones during the past year. A grief counsellor, John talked with people about how to get through the Christmas holidays when a loved one has died.

“Lots of people just want to go to bed, pull the covers over their heads, and wait until the whole season has passed,” he said. “Others want to leave town, go on a trip, not be there to witness the ‘hole’ left by the death.” Sometimes we think we’re “over it” and all Christmas does is emphasize that we’re not.”

John Saynor gave lots of good advice Tuesday night; I shared some of it last year when he spoke to grieving families. There’s more this year.

Change is good. Changing even little things like where the Christmas tree goes, or which ornaments go on it (maybe even new ones!) are all therapeutic. You can buy a new ornament commemorating the memory of your loved one. You can bring their spirit with you to meals by lighting a candle at dinner, taking the candle into the living room after dinner, lighting the candle during tree trimming, etc. Keeping the memory of your loved one is much healthier than “stuffing” it and pretending that everything is the same. It’s not the same. There’s a hole there and tears are just fine if they come.

John points out that grief affects us all in many ways... socially, mentally, spiritually, physically. If you don’t act like your old self it’s because you’re not. You’re not the same person you were last year. You look at things differently.

It’s especially important to involve young people in decisions around the holidays. Often young people worry that they’ll forget their missing parent, grandparent, or sibling and they need permission to remember and recognize and talk about the person who’s gone.

Maybe the person who always put the tree in its stand is gone; make plans for someone else to take on that job. Maybe the person who always fussed over dinner is gone; make plans for an adult child to host dinner this year. Tragedy makes us stop and think about things that are really important... pare down your list of must-do’s and keep the things that are really important.

“You can’t avoid Christmas,” says Saynor. “It’s everywhere we go. You’ll go into a store and there it is, the perfect gift for your lost loved one. Buy it anyway, and give it to someone in his or her memory.”

Preparations may paralyze you and this might be the year to take a trip, go out for Christmas dinner, simplify arrangements, toss out some traditions and introduce others. You may feel anger, loneliness, intense feelings that make you feel like it’s happening all over again. They will pass when the season passes.

How to cope? Saynor suggests talking together as a family, giving everybody the chance to be heard.
Eliminate pressures.
Lower your expectations.
Take care of your own needs.
Ask for help.
Make some changes, just for this year.
Evaluate your traditions and change the ones that seem like too much effort.
Make new memories.
Propose a toast at Christmas dinner to the one who isn’t with you. Bring that person into the day. Tears are okay.
Simplify your elaborate food preparations and buy stuff instead.
Look after yourself... take a walk, get fresh air.
Reach out to someone less fortunate.
Call a friend and have lunch.
Buy yourself a Christmas present.
Buy a gift in memory of your loved one and write a letter about its significance. Then wrap it and give it to someone who needs it.
Rather than emphasizing the day, celebrate the season. Use the whole time.
Make time to be thankful for the influence of your loved one and look ahead with hope.

Saynor summed up this way: “The bereaved walked in darkness. But there is a light there. It may flicker some days, but it’s there. Dwell on the Christmas message of hope and peace and love.

“It can help.”

And Emma? Thanks.

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