Posted by: njrigg | December 16, 2021

My Christmas Survival Plan

By Patricia Mason

As the spouse of a drowning victim, I have learned that life as you know it can change in an instant.  The entire process of losing someone without goodbyes, notice, or in my case never seeing the person again is overwhelming.  As humans we are not prepared for the idea of losing someone out of the blue who wasn’t sick.  It is overwhelming and all consuming.  Just as you are trying to find a way to keep going, the holidays arrive and can throw a bigger wrench into an already complicated and emotional situation.

My husband, Patrick, died while swimming just metres from our home on Lake Erie in July 2016.  I was at a work seminar when he died and came home to detectives looking for me, with my husband in an ambulance. I never had an opportunity to see him again.    

Christmas 2016 came at a time when I was already dealing with complicated grief, depression and the upcoming holiday season was overwhelming.  I had no interest in celebrating the holiday in any form.  I did not cook anymore, and it would have broken my heart to make Patrick’s favorite dishes without him there.  I was completely lost at what to do.  

Fortunately, I had been seeing a psychotherapist for a couple months at the time who specialized in helping traumatic death survivors.  She was an amazing source of ideas and we worked through my Christmas 2016 Survival Plan for the weeks leading up to the holiday.  She taught me that it was best to try and plan out such important events in advance which would allow me to prepare emotionally for what was going to occur.

We decided to narrow the guest list down to my mother and my adult son only on Christmas Day. This would limit the people I had to have contact with on a very emotional and difficult day.  

It was suggested to specify a short timeline for Christmas Day celebrations.  I decided to limit the celebration to a two-hour luncheon with a set start and end time which would eliminate people lingering around as well as provide personal time to grieve the loss of my husband at the Holidays.  My therapist brought up the importance of allowing myself to grieve on Christmas Day and to give myself times where I could be alone and cry as much as I wanted or look through photo albums of happier times.  This for me, was a very important part of my grieving process over the holidays.  I decided to write Patrick a letter on Christmas morning and tell him how much I missed him and how it would never be the same without him.  This was my opportunity by myself to allow myself to bear my soul to my Patrick.  The envelope was sealed, and I still have the unopened letter five years later.  

For Christmas Decorations I decided to not have a Christmas tree, but my mother had unexpectedly dropped off a small table top tree on my porch as the holiday approached, so I decided to decorate it with a few photos of Patrick and family.  Not making the house look like a Christmas village that first year made it easier for me to cope with my loss.  

We decided a set simple menu was the best approach for me.  As someone who had been living almost exclusively on cereal and fruit for almost five months, I could not imagine cooking a turkey dinner without Patrick there.  My therapist suggested that I try a pre-cooked spiral ham that I would just have to heat in the oven and serve with fresh rolls and potato salad that I could find at a local deli.  It was perfect for me because it wasn’t what I would usually have served for Christmas with Patrick, so I did not feel as sad.  

My therapist advised me to choose a couple people on Christmas day who would call at different times of the day to check on me by phone and make sure I was coping okay and did not need any help.  My best friend told me she would call me at a set time on Christmas morning and my therapist called me in the afternoon after the luncheon was over to make sure I was coping okay.  We decided that I would not answer the phone otherwise on Christmas Day, as I felt it would be too much for me to deal with.  People left me voice mails and I returned calls when I was up to talking to them.

My therapist suggested I plan activities for myself to do after my company left on Christmas Day.  My natural response was I didn’t want to do anything but she explained that it was good to preplan activities so I could avoid feeling as overwhelmed and helpless.   I have always loved watching Christmas Movies like “A Christmas Story,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” and the Die-Hard movie.   I made myself physically comfortable by wrapping myself up in my quilt made of Patrick’s clothing and eating whatever snacks I felt like. I eventually fell asleep by the fireplace.  

Overall, the day went as we planned.  Of course, it was difficult and emotional but we had planned that it would be, so it was expected.  I was proud of myself for surviving my first Christmas without my Patrick.  I am so grateful for the advice and planning I did with my therapist to prepare for the holiday.  Looking back, I think preparation was the key.  It was easier to make it through the day by knowing what was coming and limiting my contact with the outside world.  Realistically, I know that’s not possible for people with young children, for example, but it is how I spent my first Christmas.

Five years later, the big turkey dinner is back, apple pie in the oven, the tree is decorated, and stockings are hung on the fireplace.  Of course, my life is different now five years later but I have again found joy in different ways.  I will never forget the very humble and important first Christmas without Patrick.   

My advice to anyone experiencing their first holiday without their loved one is to make time for yourself to grieve your loss during the holiday season.  Remember that your grief journey is yours and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but I believe giving yourself allowances and time to grieve away from others can be very helpful.

About Patricia:

Patricia Mason is a property manager in Sherkston Ontario Canada.  She lost her husband Patrick Keith to a Lake Erie drowning while swimming in July 2016.

Patricia Mason

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