An Upside-Down Christmas, part 2: Grief

I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let ...

Read More

I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let it go (long before we’d heard of Elsa) and focus on what they did have. My friend Tami lost her mom many years ago, but I didn’t understand her sadness on Mother’s Day—couldn’t she focus on the good memories instead of feeling sad? Or celebrate being a mom to her own children?

Well, maybe she could have (and she likely did).

But how wrong I was. And how sorry I am for all of the opportunities I missed to extend kindness and grace—because now I know.

I know what it is to wonder how I can possibly celebrate when the absence is so real, so gigantic, that the void itself becomes a presence. To question how to “get over it” when the only thing time has proven is that things still have not changed. My mom still isn’t here. And I still miss her. Hundreds, now thousands, of days without her. Exponential sums and moments of being without someone whose body is not here but who is never far from my mind. Granted, I rarely cry myself to sleep anymore. But I still cry. I still mourn. And it overshadows everything, colors it as surely as if a dark filter covered the lens.

The hardest moments are the ones that are supposed to be happy—the celebrations, the milestones. The days in which we feel an obligation to laugh, to have fun, and to hide the pain that consumes us. It’s because of the juxtaposition, the extreme disparity between expectations and what we’re really feeling inside.

Some of you have had big losses—the death of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent. The grandmother who raised you. The friend who knew all of your secrets. There are other losses, too. Divorce. Family feuds. Jobs requiring relocation. Budgets and work schedules that keep people apart on holidays. Unmet expectations. Joyful personalities changed by addiction or disappointment. These things are hard enough by themselves, but add in the other stresses most of us feel this time of year—money worries, anxiety about getting the right gifts and finishing dinner preparation on time, loneliness, not enough time—and it may seem impossible to bear.

I’m still—and will continue, indefinitely, to be—trying to figure this out. To make my way and hold tight to the sparks of joy, living in the moment and not the past or the future. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some ideas. The more we try to stuff down our feelings, the harder they fight to be seen. Maybe it’s time we welcome our sorrow. Flip it around and find the comfort that dwells on the other side of the pain.

It’s there. It really is. And I hope some of these ideas will help you find it.


Carry on. My mom was a giver like no one else I’ve ever known, much of it done in secret. She didn’t want the limelight, she just loved to find thoughtful ways to help. In her memory, my household established a new Christmas tradition. All month long, each of us is on the lookout for someone or something that could use a little help. It doesn’t have to be life-altering. It doesn’t have to be about orphans or the homeless or victims of disaster, although those are certainly options. It’s simply about looking for opportunities to give. We’re honoring my mom’s legacy by learning to give the way that she did. By telling our children about the ways their grandmother made an impact on other people’s lives so that she remains real and present in their minds. By cultivating the traits within them that are like her.

Each gift is presented (or provided anonymously) by the family member who thought of it. We don’t set strict budgets, just do what seems right and what we can afford. Gifts in previous years have included: donation of “wish list” books to an elementary classroom during a book fair (not my son’s own class, because he shouldn’t be one to benefit); paying the fee for my daughter’s friend to take the train to Chicago with a school club; my husband paying the bill for oil changes and tires for people he knows through his work at an auto shop; an envelope of cash for friends with small children to help supplement their Christmas buying; anonymous gift cards to an acquaintance who is out of work. Once I start looking, I see one need after another, and the more of them I respond to, the closer I feel to my mom.

If there isn’t an obvious tradition to continue, don’t worry. When you pray, ask God to point out opportunities and suggest ideas. My former neighbors lost their son, Henry, to cancer when he was six. I can’t change that. But maybe I could donate gas cards or games to a nearby children’s hospital for another family in a similar situation. My grandmother taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed. I think of her when I sit down at night to pray with my son, knowing that just as she established that ritual in my mind, I’m helping provide a framework of prayer for my own child.


Write a special note. Chances are good that even if you haven’t experienced a deep loss, you know someone who has. Send flowers. Write a letter. Drop off cookies. There are lots of ways to let people know you’re thinking of them. But here’s the hard, potentially awkward part: don’t be shy. Mention the loved one by name. It’s a relief to be able to talk about it. To stop pretending it didn’t happen. To stop worrying that nobody else wants to know about your sadness.

If you have a sweet or funny memory, share that. And if not, just say that you’re thinking of them. You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t try to—provide neat answers in an effort to make the pain disappear. It won’t. Just tell them you’re sorry. That you know how much they miss that person. That it’s OK to still feel sad. And that you care about them. Whatever you do or say, be genuine, and take your clues from the one who is mourning. Don’t force conversations, but don’t hide from them either.


Give a gift to memorialize someone, either for the person you’ve grieving or for someone else who is. Donate to a charity or church or school or organization in the person’s name. Perhaps you can continue a tradition that person started—buying a coat and gloves for a child in the community. Wrapping presents in the local toy drive. Donating a book to the library. If your aunt was known for her baking, write the recipe on pretty recipe cards (labeled “Aunt Sue’s Famous Poppyseed Bread”) and drop off loaves to friends so that they will always say her name when they make it. Go door to door in your neighborhood collecting canned foods and donate them to a local food pantry in that person’s name.


Don’t forget the friends. Our culture accepts that we will grieve a close family member, but often overlooks the friends, coworkers, students or an unmarried partner. My sister’s best friend passed away this year. Everyone was praying for the family, worrying about Teresa’s girls and husband. Of course. Sometimes I would forget that my sister was feeling a profound loss as well.

Occasionally I run into one of Mom’s friends in a parking lot or the baking aisle at Kroger. Until I see them fighting tears, I often forget. She’s missing from their lives as well. They wish they could pick up the phone to tell her something funny. They may not feel they have the “right” to grieve, but they do anyway. Acknowledge that: Thank you for loving her, too. Or she loved you, too, you know.


Tell stories. Let your kids hear about the time she left the sweet potatoes in the microwave through dinner and didn’t find them until the next day. Talk about the funny things that have happened. Point out which ornaments she gave you or describe what Christmas was like when your dad was a little boy. Plop a box of Kleenex in the center of the table if you need to. But let yourself remember.


Or don’t. There are times when sharing is the right thing to do, and times when you aren’t ready or able to “go there.” Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to do—or not do—what is right for you at that moment. And be aware that people grieve differently. My sister and I are very close and we both lost the same person on the same day. But we rarely feel the impact of that loss at the same moment. We both read the same book within a couple weeks. I could barely get through it, sobbing because it brought up all of my emotions. Kerry was fine. But then she has moments that I’m oblivious to, like when she fixes Mom’s recipe for stuffed peppers or rolls out some homemade noodles and she wraps herself in the contentment of showing her love for her family in the same way.


There’s not just one way to grieve. And there are plenty of different ways to honor someone. The only rules? Wrap your words and efforts with kindness and gentleness. Keep trying. And practice grace, both with those who may not know how to help you face your grief and with yourself when you fall short.

Do you have any ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.

An Upside-Down Christmas (part 1)

Since I lost Mom three and a half years ago, Christmas has been decidedly less fun. The best part of Christmas was finding really fun, quirky gifts that only my mom would like—and lots of them. She did the same for me. But now, she’s not on my gift list. My kids are past the ...

Read More

Since I lost Mom three and a half years ago, Christmas has been decidedly less fun. The best part of Christmas was finding really fun, quirky gifts that only my mom would like—and lots of them. She did the same for me. But now, she’s not on my gift list. My kids are past the age of waiting by the tree with eyes full of wonder, but instead have few needs and fairly expensive wants (I’m not criticizing them; just saying how things have changed). My life—with its work, activities, and responsibilities—has gotten fuller. Busier. I have less time to “do” Christmas and less desire to add Christmas clutter to my décor… because in a few short weeks, I’ll then have to undo all the “cheer.”

But this post isn’t going to be a downer. I’m just saying that because of all of these things, I’m particularly aware that the holidays aren’t always fun. I feel like everyone expects things to go perfectly—over-the-limit credit cards to miraculously get paid off in January, family members to bury the strife they’ve stirred up for years, pounds to drop off once the Christmas fudge is all gone. And, even if you’ve lost someone you love, the hole in your heart should be filled by happy memories and other people you love. If these things happen for you, I’ll be the first to celebrate with you.

But this series of posts is for those who might be feeling stress heading into Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For the next few Fridays, I’m going to try to look at Christmas’s stressors from a different point of view. Backwards. Inside-out. Creatively. And of course, my favorite—upside down. I’m hoping these ideas will inspire you—and remind me—to find the joy in the holidays again.


Well, let’s be honest: the issue is really a lack of it, isn’t it? I love to give gifts, so I tend to buy too much. And I start a few months early, thanks to the equally-marvelous-and-terrible phenomenon of online shopping.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m so tired of hearing how gifts aren’t important. (I know, I’m such a rebel.) I fully understand that material things are not the point. That we don’t need to spend a cent. That we’re throwing money away on things that we don’t need. But here’s the thing: giving gifts is my love language. When well-meaning people (or those who are wisely trying to protect their own over-extended budgets) suggest that we don’t exchange gifts, I feel like I’ve been punched. Truly, I am fine with not getting a thing. But I hate to be robbed of my privilege to give. When I give a gift, it is because I’ve discovered that tangible things help remind people of the love I try to show them all the time. Friends, some of whom live in other states, comment that every time they see the glass bowl I gave them as a wedding gift (or the antique flower salt and pepper shakers or the Jane Austen action figure), they think of me. One friend even said that although her children haven’t met me more than a couple times, they know who I am because they’ve heard the story of a gift I gave their mom. You don’t have to convince me of all the reasons gifts should not be (and are not) the focus of Christmas or remind me what it’s all about. I know, I really do. But the fact remains that gifts are often a part of our celebrations.

So today, as we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and the frenzy of blockbuster sales and extreme shopping, we’re going to talk about some gifts you can give that will cost you very little but be meaningful to give or receive. Some take a little more time than others, but the price tag will be small.

What’s in a name? Spend some time on eBay or etsy or Google searching for the names of people on your list. One year I gave Mom a framed matchbook from Hotel O’Dell, an old hotel with my parents’ last name, and a memoir called Miss O’Dell. I found antique sheet music for a song with my daughter Katie’s first name in the title. I found a beer label with a drawing of the Stanley Hotel, the hotel from The Shining (written by my husband’s favorite author, Stephen King), and framed it for my husband. These things fit in inexpensive, standard-size frames, but they showed thought. You can also order (through a site like etsy) customized pendants with a person’s name or a favorite phrase stamped into the metal.

Pick a theme. It can be simple or complex. Is her favorite color lime green? Then buy a few assorted items—pens, a notebook, nail polish, socks—and put them in a lime green gift bag. One year my friend Marcia gave me a bag of gifts with a card that said, “Because you’re bigger than life.” It contained an oversize candy bar, giant highlighter, super-size bottle of wine, and so on. I just put together an inexpensive correspondence kit for Marcia’s 7-year-old daughter with a bunch of items found on clearance—notecards and pens, some 47¢ greeting cards from Walmart, a small address book, stickers, and a sheet of stamps in a plastic box. Maybe you could choose a favorite recipe, copy it onto a pretty card, and include it with one or two ingredients (a gourmet bottle of olive oil or vanilla extract, a fancy bag of pasta, or pretty cupcake liners and sprinkles—easily found at places like World Market and HomeGoods). Perhaps you give away a movie night—a $5 CD from a clearance bin somewhere, some microwave popcorn, an oversized box of candy and a couple bottles of pop.

Do the shuffle. Come up with some kind of exchange—make a game of it—and instead of buying gifts for everyone at a specific gathering, have each person bring one thing. A $10 gift card to their favorite restaurant or clothing store. A favorite book (new or used). A favorite movie (dig through the $5 bins at the big department stores). Or do the “white elephant” game and try to come up with the funniest, most outrageous gifts. You may use something you already own or spend months scouring yard sales and Goodwill looking for just the right thing. Let the exchange be fun and allow yourselves to spend time enjoying it, so it’s not focused on the actual gift itself but the experience and laughter around it.

Know any authors? Ask them to sign books to the person getting the gift. Plan ahead, and try to attend author fairs and library events throughout the year where people will be signing the books they wrote.

Give the gift of you. Make something, even if you’re not particularly crafty—homemade candy, loaves of bread, or coupon books of chores. Or spend some time on Pinterest looking for ideas. (Don’t be disappointed if the finished product doesn’t look as good as the pictures. Just have fun making it.) Order reprints of favorite photos and put them into a small album. You could even write a short letter telling that person what they mean to you. Or use a paint pen to write your favorite scripture around a Christmas ornament. Alternatively, shop in local, independent stores, markets and craft fairs and buy unusual or hand-crafted products.

You’ve been framed. Print 5×7” or 8×10” copies of pretty photos you took on a recent vacation or hike through the woods, put them in inexpensive frames, and give those as gifts. Copy your favorite poem or Bible verse onto a pretty sheet of paper and draw little flourishes around it. Or dig through boxes of old photos until you find a photo of the two of you together and have a copy made. Go to the local antique store and look through boxes of old postcards. Select one with a sweet sentiment or old-fashioned illustration of a town or landmark that your friend likes.

Write a prayer or gratitude journal for your friend or relative. One year, I wanted to give my friend Peggy something meaningful. She believes strongly in the power of prayer—as do I—but saying “I prayed for you” feels rather vague and abstract. So I got a small journal and spent one month before Christmas recording my prayers for her. Each day I had a different focus—each of her kids, her husband, ministry, work, relationships, finances, faith. At the end of the month, she was moved by the gift and loved reading through it. It represented, in a tangible way, the prayers I said for her.


I could go on and on. I love this kind of thing. But I’ll stop before this becomes the world’s longest post. (It may already be too late.)

Next week, I’ll be talking about holidays colored by loss or overshadowed by grief and suggesting some ways to meaningfully remember or honor someone you’re missing. In subsequent weeks, we’ll discuss time (finding it, filling it, prioritizing it) and ways to infuse spiritual meaning when it often gets obscured by everything else. If you have suggestions for additional topics or ideas you’d like me to include, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments or email kellyostanley-at-me-dot-com.

In the meantime, enjoy your turkey and pumpkin pie, or whatever your particular Thanksgiving tradition is. And know that I’m thankful for you—for all the ways you encourage me, and for the fact that you actually want to read my rambling writings :-).

More giveaways

Congrats, Lisa Ransom Smith! You won Monday’s giveaway (I’m a little behind schedule). You can choose between these two prizes: Matt Appling’s fabulous book, Life After Art, or a Create Every Day mini journal. I still haven’t heard from tyroper, who won a giveaway last week (you entered just by subscribing to my blog). I need your address and ...

Read More

Congrats, Lisa Ransom Smith! You won Monday’s giveaway (I’m a little behind schedule). You can choose between these two prizes: Matt Appling’s fabulous book, Life After Art, or a Create Every Day mini journal.

I still haven’t heard from tyroper, who won a giveaway last week (you entered just by subscribing to my blog). I need your address and I’ll mail your prize — whoever gets to me first gets to pick, and the other person will get the other prize. Just please email me your mailing addresses (!

Thanks, everyone. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that you notice all the beauty around you as you head into this new year.

This website and its content are copyright of Kelly O'Dell Stanley  | © Kelly O'Dell Stanley 2019. All rights reserved.

Site design by 801red