“Like snowflakes, my Christmas memories gather and dance — each beautiful, unique, and gone too soon.”

Deborah Whipp

I put off writing this blog long enough! As Christmas approaches, the words have been simmering in the back of my mind for weeks. I’m finally forcing myself to sit down and let them pour onto the page. This is my fifth Christmas without Emily… fifth! I can’t believe how time marches on, even though it feels as if it stood still on the day my oldest child died. The feelings of loss, regret, and longing are not as relentless as they were that first Christmas without her, seven months after she died. They’ve just descended below the surface, and all it takes is one little scratch for them to come bubbling up. Writing this blog is one big scratch, and I wanted to avoid it because when grief rears its ugly head, there is no escaping the pain. As I prepared to sit down and write about my “Christmas child,” I looked at the photos I have of her throughout her childhood with Santa, the ornaments she made from preschool through elementary school, and memories came calling like ghosts of Christmas past. Some make me smile, while others bring tears to my eyes. All of them expose the gaping hole in my heart I’d rather keep concealed. 

I call Emily my “Christmas child” because while most kids love Christmas, Emily loved it with a passion that exceeded anyone I’ve ever known. She began anticipating Christmas right after her second favorite holiday, Halloween, writing up her wish list, along with Christmas crafting and present-making. We had a tradition of Santa showing up at our house on Christmas Eve. His visit was preceded by a large “thud” on the back deck, and he’d come barreling in through the patio door with a big bag of presents in tow. While Emily was thrilled beyond words, her little sister, Abby, was terrified, running up to her room, finally to be coaxed out with a new set of princess shoes. Emily’s belief in the magic of Christmas was steadfast, and she didn’t want to give it up. When she was probably a little too old to still believe in Santa, we carried on the tradition for her younger siblings. Even though “Santa” was a family friend, we all knew as “Big Dan,” Emily never put two and two together. I’ll never forget the day the illusion was shattered. A few weeks before her 10th Christmas, Emily and I stepped into a store where Big Dan was playing Santa. A former co-worker of mine happened to be walking in simultaneously. He pointed at “Santa” and said, “Look, there’s Big Dan.” Emily’s eyes widened. She looked at me and looked at “Santa,” and she instantly knew the truth. She burst into tears, and she didn’t stop crying for hours. I felt horrible. She wasn’t ready for the magic to end, and there was nothing I could do to make it better. 

Even through her rebellious teenage years and after she moved out of my home, she always regained that child-like innocence at Christmas time. She and I made cookies and fudge together after my other children had lost interest in such activities. On Christmas Eve, Emily donned her Christmas pajamas and socks, wrapping herself in a Christmas blanket. She never let us skip a single tradition: Christmas Eve mass, followed by dinner, lighting the candles, reading the story of Jesus’ birth, and singing a couple of Christmas carols before finally opening presents. She made us all presents, and they were always thoughtful and artistic. On her last Christmas with us, I surprised her with a beautiful blue box made of stained glass. She had picked it out when shopping with Abby and me. I told Emily to return it to the shelf, and then I had Abby distract her. I made an excuse that I was going to the bathroom, but instead, I purchased the box. I’ll never forget the look of delight on her face when she opened it. After her death, I found the blue box in her room. It had been broken by her abusive boyfriend, who flew into rages and ripped her paintings and destroyed her things. But she had kept the broken box. I couldn’t stand to look at it and threw it away. Even writing about it now, I feel queasy. Maybe I should have kept it and tried to repair it, but what was a joyous memory had become all too painful. 

Emily's stocking hangs by the fire every Christmas

Emily’s Christmas joys and sorrows are just part of the fabric of her short life. Her youngest brother, the baby of the family, is about to turn 21. Adam just returned home from college, and together we visited the mausoleum where Emily’s ashes are held to decorate a vase on her niche for Christmas. As we were leaving, Adam turned to me and said, “Mom, I can’t believe I’m about to turn 21, and that’s how old Emily was when she died. I have my whole life ahead of me.”  Emily’s adult life is just a big question mark–all the “would-ofs” and “could-ofs” never to be. I mourn for the Christmas present without her and the Christmas future, the joys and the sorrows she will never know. 

Faith, Hope & Courage,

Angela

54 responses

  1. Cindy Borg Avatar
    Cindy Borg

    Thank you for your post! I too lost my oldest daughter. To Covid not Fentanyl. She was 36. This is our 2nd Christmas without her. We are raising her daughters. We remember Christmas past and present and the ones she’ll miss here on earth. Bless you!

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Cindy,
      I am so very sorry for your loss! So many people are grieving a loss to COVID this holiday season. But it doesn’t matter how our children died, we all miss them exactly the same! Bless you for raising your grandchildren! Please take extra good care of yourself this holiday season!

      1. Merle Muhe Avatar
        Merle Muhe

        Angela,
        That is so beautiful. One can tell it is from the ❤️.
        This will be my 2 nd Christmas without my mother. She was 91 and passed away a yr ago September 30. I am alone now as I am the last one left in my family. I look back as you have and remember all the joyous times growing up on the ranch.
        I will take this opportunity to wish you and your family Avery blessed “MERRY CHRISTMAS”

        1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
          Angela Kennecke

          Merry Christmas to you as well, Merle! I am sorry for the loss of your mother! Hold onto those memories!

      2. Pamela Erickson Avatar
        Pamela Erickson

        I lost my oldest son James (JD) this past March. It’s still hard to believe. Thank you for helping me not feel alone in my grief. Wishing you a Merry Christmas.

        1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
          Angela Kennecke

          I am so very sorry for the loss of JD! You are not alone! My heart is with you!

  2. Crystal Sibson Avatar
    Crystal Sibson

    Thanks for sharing so eloquently put I always enjoy reading the things you write. Hoping you have a very Merry Christmas 🎄🎁

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you for reading, Crystal!

  3. Mary Lou Hofmann Avatar
    Mary Lou Hofmann

    What a beautiful story about your precious daughter. Wonderful memories. I lost my precious husband in 2017 so this is six years of Christmas without him. The pain has lessened some but it’s still there. I lean on the Lord every day To get me through. I honor him every chance I get when I talk about him, especially to the grandchildren they miss him so much. Love to you and your family from my home to yours.

  4. We lost my daughter-in-law to alcoholism 3 years ago. My son, her husband, is still in its grip. The maternal family is raising her son (my son is not his father, but was the only dad he ever knew), and we are raising their 7 year old daughter. Three years without their mom for Christmas, because of addiction. My son was recently arrested for his 5th DUI. He will probably go to the penitentiary. He’s been in rehab X 3, just to get out and head to the nearest liquor store. It’s so hard for people to understand what any addiction does, not only to the addict, but to the entire family. All we can do is make the holidays as happy as possible for those innocent children…..and pray that one day things will be easier. Bless you and your mission….and have the merriest Christmas you can manage. Sending love.

  5. Michelle and Joe Ceretti Avatar
    Michelle and Joe Ceretti

    So beautifully written, hugs and prayers to all of you this Christmas season.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you!

  6. V Scannell Avatar
    V Scannell

    I lost my 3 children and their Dad 27 years ago. I have often thought that I would like to meet you and share thoughts.

    Some will say time heals. No way. Time forces you to live with loss, but nothing will ever remove the heartache. Until a parent has walked these shoes, they will never know the loss.

    God Bless you as you continue on your mission that God has called you to do.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I am so sorry for your multiple losses! You are correct, you do somehow learn to live with it. God bless you in all you do!

  7. Barb Avery-Sterud Avatar
    Barb Avery-Sterud

    Angela, I hope that writing this beautiful tribute will bring you a little bit of peace in your heart. While Christmas will never be the same, she will be with you in Spirit, still checking to make sure you don’t skip a tradition! Look for her presence and her light.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Barb!

  8. William Geheren Avatar
    William Geheren

    Angela, thank you for the absolutely beautiful stories about Emily. As you know I can relate having lost my Charlie around the same time. We were never sure how much he understood of many things, but he loved Christmas lights, music and the smell of candles. The holes in our hearts will never be refilled, but the memories will live forever. Thank you!

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thinking of Charlie and your entire family! Peace to you!

  9. Tim Hoeke Avatar

    I know nothing will bring back your daughter but just think of all the things you do in her memory You are still doing things that she would have been very proud of you being involved in. It makes you a far better human it is not only what would Jesus do but also what would Emily do We also lost a son but not like you did Just remember how full their life was because it was on borrowed time all condensed down to what little time they had here on earth. In the words of Red Skeleton “God Bless” Try to have a happy holiday with all you still have around you

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      It doesn’t matter how a child dies, it’s the same pain for all parents. I do appreciate my other children and husband and who I have left by my side!

  10. Marilyn Stroh Avatar
    Marilyn Stroh

    Angela, what a beautiful post. I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child, as I am not a parent.

    I do know the pain of losing a sibling. My middle brother committed suicide at age 29, and I recall the year I turned 29 as one of the most difficult for me.

    Thinking of you and your family during this Christmas season and praying for the peace that only the Christ child can bring.

    Blessings!

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Marilyn! I know losing a sibling is different than losing a child, but loss is loss and when you lose a loved one in a stigmatized way, such as suicide or overdose it is a difficult thing to cope with!

  11. Lois Polfus Avatar
    Lois Polfus

    Your blog was so well written and very beautifully done. Thank you for sharing it. I love all of your pictures that you have included. Always put everything in God’s hands and he will see you through to the end. Love and Prayers. Merry Christmas to you and your family Angela.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Lois!

  12. I am so sorry about the loss of your daughter, Emily. She was so beautiful and talented. Angela your post brought tears to my eyes. I lost our 46 -year-old son due to a heart attack in January 2019 and my husband died from COPD in February 2019. I, too, know the pain of losing a child. Christmas was always so special to our son. My husband was in the AA program for 38 years prior to his death. I really admire you for your work in promoting treatment for substance abuse. God bless you and I will say a prayer for Emily at our Christmas Eve Mass.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Beverley! I am so sorry for your losses! I will pray for you and your husband and son as well!

  13. Michelle Gibson Avatar
    Michelle Gibson

    I got quesy, just before I read your words “made me quesy”
    Stay strong, my daughters and I (10/12) miss you on tv, always spunky and positive!
    I was the very first opioid patient at Keystone, was over prescribed for years, and I had, had enough!
    They didn’t have a plan,policy, a clue, how to treat me.
    Needless to say, I have never taken hydro again, except after a major surgery.
    They prescribed 3 a day for 5 days, I took 2 total(patting myself in the back)
    I admire what you are doing for addicts and stigma.
    God bless you and your family this Christmas, I pray for peace

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I am so happy to hear you are doing well, Michelle! This opioid/fentanyl scourge on our nation needs to end!

  14. Linda Wattier Avatar
    Linda Wattier

    Thank you for sharing, brought tears to my eyes. God Bless you and your family at Christmas.🙂

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Linda!

  15. Mary Ann Andress Avatar
    Mary Ann Andress

    I loved hearing about your Christmas’ with Emily and family. You are a strong woman and you will continue to do wonderful things and make a difference in the world. God Bless.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you so much, Mary Ann!

  16. Julia Ohara Avatar
    Julia Ohara

    We lost Tommy our 29 yr old to fentanyl poisoning 12/22/2021 .
    I am so broken and I don’t think I will ever be put together
    As you the what ifs and I should of are up front in my mind always .
    I miss him so much

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I am so sorry that our children are being murdered in this way! I am a little ahead of you in this grief journey! Honor Tommy’s life and keep moving forward! Sending you so much love!

  17. Angela
    Thanks for sharing your story .. I lost my oldest son at 20yrs in a bike (kawasaki) accident . It’s been jus over 2yrs allready . Time moves on but yet time stands still.. I too struggle to decorate the tree I have no problem putting the tree up and lights its all the memories that go on the tree that are so hard . Everyday here is one day closer to him . Hugs to you this Christmas

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Pamela, I am so sorry for your loss! Please take care of yourself this holiday season!

  18. Donna Jensen Avatar
    Donna Jensen

    Angela, I can only imagine your pain and that of your family. I cried as I read this and pray that I go before any of my family. My Mom left us in 2005 and my heart still aches from missing her. I have a granddaughter that I constantly pray for that has had many problems with drugs and she’s only 18. God bless you.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I hope your granddaughter gets the help she needs before it’s too late! Fentanyl in the drug supply is a game-changer! I am sorry for the loss of your mother!

  19. Angeline Spartz Avatar
    Angeline Spartz

    Angela , your stories just break my heart. God Bless you and keep all your loved ones safe this Holiday Season. I have lost loved ones but no children or grandchildren. When I read your blog, it scares me as life can change in a heartbeat at any time.
    Stay strong and keep the faith.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you! Yes, life can change in an instant! We should all hold those we love close, while we can!

  20. Angela,
    I think of you and Emily often, especially at this time of year. I remember working with you that first Christmas. You were looking for a mountain getaway where you could celebrate with your family because it was too difficult to be at your own house without Emily. I’ve never stopped thinking of you all and I love reading your blog posts. Your experience has encouraged me to talk about fentanyl poising with my own children and their friends. It terrifies me to know how prevalent it is. You may remember we lost my 27-year old cousin to fentanyl poisoning a year before you lost Emily. Thank you for pushing onward and upward through your pain to educate others and help in preventing more senseless deaths.
    Be well.
    Kathleen Rose (Colorado)

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Kathleen! Getting away did help that first Christmas, although it didn’t totally take away the pain as I had hoped! I am so glad you are talking to your kids and their friends about fentanyl! That so very important! I do remember you lost your cousin. At the rate of deaths, this epidemic will ultimately touch every family. Thank you for your support!

  21. Diana Wilson Avatar
    Diana Wilson

    What a beautiful memory and tribute to Emily’s soul. Each Christmas I will remember this Christmas Angel with a tear and a loving smile. God Bless

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Diana!

  22. Angela Oliver Avatar
    Angela Oliver

    I find it interesting (and touching) how objects we hold in our hands can bring forth such vivid memories and emotions. Your post is heartfelt, bittersweet and helpful to many people because the pain of loss at Christmas is especially tough.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you so much! My hope is that others know they are not alone!

  23. Elizabeth Sue Meyer Avatar
    Elizabeth Sue Meyer

    Angela,

    You can know that Emily is the most beautiful Christmas Angel in heaven! You were such a wonderful and caring mother and you still are dedicating your spirit and life to saving other others! Without a doubt, your beautiful Emily is very very proud of you!!! You inspire all of us to do more!! Peace and Love to you and your family!!

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you so much for your kind words and have a wonderful holiday!

  24. Thank you for educating people both on the murders by fentanyl and teaching others how to grieve. It’s different for everyone, of course, but it is important to be intentional about naming the grief and having it witnessed.
    I’m sending prayers and compassion as you continue on this bold path.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      Thank you, Delaine! And thank you for sharing your story with us!

  25. Peggy Satrang Avatar
    Peggy Satrang

    Hi Angela, I lost my daughter in a car accident in Aug. of 1993, the worst day of my life. Nothing can compare to this feeling! She was 22 yrs old and due to graduate from SDSU in Dec. I have 2 sons, also, and we miss her terribly! Christmas is a very lonely time for me as my sons are out on their own and I have since divorced. I have good friends and family to help me through this but things will never be the same. I know the feelings you have shared even tho the circumstances were different. Please take care of yourself and thank you for all you do!

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I think those of us who lost a child feel the same way, it doesn’t matter how they died! Please take care of yourself this holiday season and know my heart is with you!

  26. I am thinking of you and yours Angela. This has struck my family this year with my 18-year-old Daughter being in Avera Addiction. I was amazed at Emily’s artwork and her life summary. I appreciate your education while we go thru this journey as we all have a lot to learn. I know as a family we have a long way to go but we will support each other the whole way. Prayers for you this Holiday season.

    1. Angela Kennecke Avatar
      Angela Kennecke

      I am so glad your daughter is getting treatment! Did she get an Emily’s Hope Treatment Scholarship? Thank you for appreciating Emily’s artwork! That means a lot to me. I wish your family the best!

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