Share this blog:

How do you handle life’s transitions as the older generations age and the young ones grow up and marry? How do you maintain family connections, especially those time-honored holiday traditions and rituals?

The aggrieved, widowed sister wrote Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist:

Our extended family—siblings and kids—has always gathered at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last week I got a text from my sister saying she and her family would be going away for the holiday and would no longer host Christmas Eve at their home.

This came out of the blue and is really upsetting me. My brother and I have both been widowed in the last four years and this event was something we looked forward to because everyone attended and it was a lot of fun. (My brother has grown children; I do not.) We feel surprised and unwanted and don’t understand the decision.

Of course it is their right to celebrate as they wish, and I kick myself for expecting a 30-year tradition to continue. But I can’t figure out how to feel okay about this. I feel rejected, and I don’t know why they would do that.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so painful if I had a family of my own, but I no longer do. Any advice? I haven’t said anything except “I’m disappointed” to my sister.

While Hax’s answer is good, I want to address the widow more bluntly and ask a few more questions. And while I agree that announcing that you’re ending the 30-year tradition by text isn’t a good way to do this, I wonder if perhaps Sister was simply dodging having an unpleasant conversation with her siblings.

It’s pretty amazing that the entire family, including adult children (married? with children of their own?) have managed to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together for 30 years. I envy them. My children live 400 miles from each other, and both families celebrate Christmas in their own homes. We all manage to get together at some point during the holidays; but as the grandchildren have grown up, started work and married, it has become more and more complicated. I am learning to be flexible.

  • Do all family members live in the same town?
  • Are there no in-laws in either generation who would like to see them on an occasional holiday?
  • Have the widow and her brother ever offered to host the family gathering, especially in the 26 years their spouses were alive? Have they brought side dishes, offered to provide the turkey or the wine, helped with prep and cleanup; or have they simply been guests all these years?
  • Where are Sister and her family going for Christmas? and why? Is it possible that with Christmas on a Tuesday, the adult children can’t get home?

Christmas Eve dinner for 5

I write in my memoir, Reclaiming Joy:

Holidays were worst of all. Even the remote possibility that I might be alone on a day when everyone in the world seemed to be with family caused major anxiety that set in weeks, even months in advance and was alleviated only when my children’s plans were finalized and I knew where I would be. I had never spent Christmas Eve or Christmas night by myself….

The idea of being alone on major holidays, even for an evening, still terrifies me. I cannot have what I want most, which is to have Lev alive and all the children gathered around my tree and my table. I struggle to be thankful for what I have, instead of wishing for a past that cannot be. While I seldom fall into sinkholes any longer, I sometimes stumble and trip on the rough spots in the road. Each year is better. I have become more proactive and less dependent on my family in planning my holiday. I am learning how to celebrate fully and joyfully without Lev.

So here is my advice to the widow:

First, take Hax’s advice. Tell Sister, “I’ll miss the tradition, but I admire you for having the courage to do what you needed. Carrying the expectations of the entire family for three decades can’t have been easy for you.

“Thank you for those 30 years.”

Next, call Brother and see what he plans to do. It sounds like he has depended on Sister to make Christmas for him and his now-grown children all these years. You’re a widow with no children. Offer to help him make Christmas for his family—your house or his, whichever his family wants. But don’t be surprised if his family is relieved and ready to start making new traditions of their own. If they invite you to join them, don’t hesitate. Say yes quickly, before they change their minds.

Family Christmastime at the Dallas condo

If this is not an option, come up with a Plan B for yourself. Quoting again from my book,

For whatever reason, we widows seem to forget how to entertain. We slip into neutral gear, waiting for others to invite us.

What are your friends’ plans? While I felt like I was the only person in the world who was alone when I returned to my empty house on Christmas afternoon when my children went to their in-laws, I learned many others faced the same situation.

One year Mary Anne turned her townhouse into a Christmas fantasy and invited all her friends—single and couples—who were spending Christmas alone to come for Christmas Day. She set up small tables in every available inch of space, pulled out her best china and silver, and spread out a feast for us. It was my first Christmas dinner away from family. To my surprise, I had fun.

But your Christmas event doesn’t have to be so grand. Last Christmas I borrowed from Mary Anne’s playbook and asked around to find other “strays” who would be alone Christmas evening. I invited about a dozen, including several I knew only casually, to drop by my house for a casual buffet. It was a relaxed evening of good conversation and fellowship. But it can be even simpler than that. If you are a person of faith, invite a friend or two over for appetizers before the Christmas service or for dessert and coffee afterwards.

Instead of throwing a pity party, throw a party for your friends. You can fill the empty days and hours leading up to Christmas with decorating and cooking, and you can create a memorable time for yourself and those you reach out to.

* * *

Today’s blog includes excerpts—including quotations from pages 71, 14, 98 and 112— from Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press.

Photos illustrate ways I have coped with life’s transitions—a casually elegant dinner with BFFs on my December wedding anniversary, my traditional Christmas Eve dinner for the Corpus Christi family and an after-Christmas gathering of the entire family in my Dallas condo.

I have written often on the importance of hospitality:

“As widows we can live on our memories of the past, or we can create opportunities to live with joyful anticipation—always one more thing on the calendar to look forward to. When we throw a party, we share that gift of anticipation with our friends. We can take those very events that are our sinkholes—holidays, anniversaries, long weekends—and turn them into keenly anticipated and enjoyed moments. And as we practice hospitality, we nurture strong relationships that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.” What I Wish People Knew About Grief, 

Book News

The Kindle edition of Reclaiming Joy is now available from Amazon.

Upcoming Events:

January 10, 2019 – “Resolved: To Reclaim Joy in 2019,” Deja Vu Crew, 9:45 a.m.,  followed by book signing, Recreation Center, First Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas.

January 13, 2019 – “Resolved to Claim Joy”; interviews during 8:30 and 11 a.m. worship services, guest speaker at 12:30 p.m. luncheon, Great Hall, Wilshire Baptist Church, 4316 Abrams Road, Dallas, Texas.

January 24, 2019 -“Resolved: To Reclaim Joy in 2019,” Women of the Church, All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Contact Ella if you would like to attend and want more details.

In the Media:

November 16, 2018 – Ella discusses coping with the myriad business issues that confronted her immediately after her husband died with Fred Tromberg on “Life, the Law and Legal Matters.”