This is my first holiday season in 21 years without my daughter. I know I am not alone in missing a loved one during this time of year. I’m told by those further down this path of loss than I am, that it never really gets easier—you just learn to live with it. I braced myself for a powerful storm of emotions, because I knew they would come. And they did; wave after wave of grief, crashing upon me as each day we inch closer to Emily’s favorite holiday: Christmas.

Like so many moms I started traditions with my children. From the decorating to the baking to attending mass and Santa’s visit on Christmas Eve, nobody loved and helped me carry on those traditions more than my oldest child. Last year she called me, “When are we going to make fudge mom? What about gingerbread cookies for Abby (her sister’s favorite)?” We set a date. She was the only one interested in baking with me; all of her teenage siblings were doing their own thing. We played Christmas music and spent a couple of hours in the kitchen together. As we poured the fudge into the pan, she put it on her Snapchat story.

Emily, Abby and I went shopping for presents one evening last fall. Emily found a beautiful jewelry box that she wanted from Home Goods and she carried it around the store, like a little treasure. When I didn’t offer to buy it for her, she went to put the blue box, with a crystal on top, away. I asked Abby to distract her and I retraced her steps to find the box on the shelf. I’ll never forget the surprised and delighted look on her face on Christmas Eve when she opened that present.

I have no fewer than six Rubbermaid containers full of Christmas decorations in my basement. This year I didn’t know if I could bring myself to put anything up. However, after I made it through Thanksgiving, I thought it wouldn’t be fair to my other children if I didn’t at least put out a few sentimental items in honor of the holiday. Inside the first container I discovered all of the framed pictures of my children sitting on Santa’s lap over the years. Since Emily was the oldest, there are more of her — looking cute and excited in every single one. As I took them out and put some up, I began to sob — well, wail is really more like it. I walked around my house for the next half-hour crying with my mascara running down my face, as I carefully placed a few decorations here and there. I then put up all of our stockings, including Emily’s. There was something that just felt right about that; keeping her place on the mantle and in our hearts this season.  

Emily at age 2 with Santa in 1999

My Christmas memories of Emily are like a frame around a picture of her that I carry in my heart. The only antidote I can find to grief is gratitude. Every day this Advent season I will practice being grateful—grateful for the time I had with her, for the memories I cherish and the blessing of my family members who I am still able to wrap my arms around this Christmas.

Faith, Hope & Courage,