The First Holiday Without Them -- Coping With Loss

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There will be no Christmas tree this year for Christine Hebert, and no decorations, as it just doesn't feel right to celebrate the holidays the way she used to since her husband, Leon, died last March of lung cancer.

"Christmas was his favorite time of year and always mine too, but this year I'd prefer it to be more about celebrating his memory than about celebrating the season. Things were more tolerable up until the holidays.Thanksgiving was tough, and I'm sure Christmas will be even worse," Hebert says.

Come Christmas morning, Hebert plans on going to the cemetery to spend time with her husband.

"I couldn't imagine spending Christmas any other way this year. Doing normal Christmas things just wouldn't feel natural. I find comfort in going there. I sit and talk to him and remember a lot of things that you take for granted every day. It's going to be a day that I can stop trying to cope and move on. I'm just going to have the whole day to concentrate on him. Hopefully, next year will be different," she says. "It's been nine months since he passed, but it still feels like yesterday."

For those still mourning the loss of a spouse, child, parent or other loved one, that first holiday season can be an emotionally trying time. Between the memories that are stirred up by the festivities and the expectations to be jolly and full of holiday spirit, the season can mean slipping back into grief and depression for those still coping with loss.

While grief counselors and therapists agree that there's no right or wrong way to celebrate that first holiday after the death of a loved one, there are ways to ease the pain of the holiday, and things that friends and family can do to help those in mourning.

Family Support vs. Time Alone

For Hebert, time with family has been essential and was the predominant factor in her getting through the Thanksgiving holiday, for which her husband had traditionally done all the cooking. She says her family's support has been a great "blessing" for her, but she also feels that she needs to spend Christmas Day mostly alone so that she can remember and mourn and celebrate her husband in peace. She will spend the days leading up to the holiday and the days after at her sister's with extended family, but not the day itself.

Often, there is an assumption that the best remedy for getting through the holidays while grieving is distraction and keeping busy and doing all the traditional holiday activities. While this can be helpful for some, it is not the only way to help yourself through this time, experts say.

Reaching Out and Taking Time for Self

"If a person says to their family, 'I just need to be by myself,' often some family members will say that that's bad and they can't be left alone. But if [you] feel in your gut and your heart that that's what you need for your coping, then you follow your gut. Everybody needs space differently, and I wouldn't say that it's necessarily a sign of someone not coping to want to be alone," says Amy Sales, a social worker and author of "Walking on Eggshells," a guide for caregivers of those with life-limiting illnesses.

It's different for everyone. But those who choose to be alone on the holiday should be aware of getting caught up in negative thoughts, says George Everly, who works in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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