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The First Christmas After the Sudden Death of a Spouse

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

By Patti Urban, 12/13/21

For many, this time last year was just another holiday season with the same traditions and preparations. All the usual activities, holiday parties, delicious meals and goodies, and visits with friends and family. Santa would come and bring lots of gifts. Midnight Mass was attended to rejoice in the birth of the baby Jesus.

This year, however it is totally different. You see, somewhere during the course of the year, a loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. And they couldn’t beat the odds. After months of treatment which proved useless and the introduction to hospice care and its discharge have left family members shaking their head wondering what the heck happened. They look back on pictures from a year ago where a normal, happy family existed, and today see a family in grief, torn apart by the death of someone they loved.

Often what happens is that there are lots of friends and family that visit while the loved one is sick and dying. Then after the services, the family often finds themselves alone. Really alone. And struggling to go on. Add in Christmas and you have a recipe for disaster.

It’s not enough to just put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. For the wife whose husband died leaving her with young kids and very little income to the husband whose wife died leaving him with his job and money but with no one to take care of the kids, Christmas just plain does a number on everyone’s emotions. It’s gone from the holiday the family loved to a holiday divided: the holiday before the death and the new, barely able to keep it together holiday of after the death.

So then, what should you do for the grieving family this holiday season? Do you send cards? How do you address the cards? Do you mention the name of the spouse that died? In my professional opinion, yes, send a card and address it to the surviving family. But make mention of the husband or wife who is no longer there. They should always be remembered and not forgotten. Death doesn’t mean they get erased. Here are my five tips for helping the family through the first holiday:

1. Call and call often. Leave messages such as “ I’m just thinking of you. You don’t have to call back. I understand. “ Or “I’m going to the store today and will be dropping off something for you later. If you’re not home, that’s OK.” Do not ask them to do anything for you.

2. Offer to shop for the kids or wrap presents. It’s extremely sad to spend the first Christmas without your spouse. Normal things that would have been shared are now left squarely on the shoulders of one person. And that one person is now both mom and dad to the kids. Be there to help.

3. Bring in a small basket and some index cards. Have your friend take a little time each morning or evening to write down some chores that need to be done during the week. Place each card containing a chore into the basket. This way when someone does visit and asks if they can do anything, your friend won’t have to fight through the fog just to try to think of something.

4. Invite the family to your house. Give them a change of environment to help heal their souls. Understand when they decide to go home early.

5. Listen. Listen to them talk about their loved one. If they don’t, then bring up the subject. Tell stories about their spouse. They are not to be forgotten just because they died. Use the deceased’s name often. It’s soothing to those grieving knowing that you miss their loved one too.

Often those you think you can count on the most go missing while relative strangers step up and help out the most. Tragedies change families and friends. And some people just are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say. So instead of saying anything, they just disappear. Remember, each person’s grief is totally unique to them. And it’s a very lonely place. You don’t have to say anything. Just be there and listen.


Patti Urban, CSA, is the CEO of Aging Care Planning Solutions, a geriatric care management practice that assists the elderly and their families with advance care planning as well as guidance for patients with life-limiting illnesses. She is also a Certified End of Life Doula, a Certified Senior Advisor, former Executive Director of a memory-care assisted living community, and former owner of a home care agency. She can be reached at

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