LIVING WITH LOSS AT CHRISTMAS

Christmas for most individuals is a time to spend with family, and for us, it was no different. Growing up in a medical family, however, meant that it was a celebration near the end of December, not December 25th exactly. My dad, Dr. Thomas Briggs, was a neurosurgeon, and my mom, Cheryl Briggs, worked as his nurse for many years. As amazing as it would be for people to not need medical care over Christmas, life does not work that way. There are many professions that do not wait for the holidays, and the medical field is one. Because of this, Christmas was when we made it, not necessarily a particular day.


My sister and I are not morning people, so unlike in the movies, there was no sunrise stampede to the Christmas tree. While opening presents, eating good food, and spending time watching movies or playing games together did not always happen on December 25th, we did have some traditions for Christmas Eve, and Christmas day. Christmas Eve, assuming we had not already celebrated Christmas, we could choose one present each to open early. It was great fun shaking and examining gifts, trying to figure out which one was ‘the best’. Sometimes we chose well, a new book, or game, or movie to tide us until we could have family festivities, sometimes, well… I appreciate the gift of socks much more now as an adult than I did as a child.

On December 25th we opened our stockings, usually full of snacks or small coloring and activity books. Those Life Savers books were traditional through all our primary years, with the games and the candy all in one. It was fun and exciting for us, probably a nightmare for the adults. As I said before, both parents were medical field, so sometimes we spent December 24th through 26th with other family if mom and dad had to work and could not be sure they would be home.


As we grew up, and left for college or got our own places, Christmas has only changed a little. Mom still to this day stuffs our stockings (at her house) full of candy (that my sister barely eats).

Christmas Forever Changed

Five years ago, the Christmas holidays forever changed. My father, who was an inspiration, a friend, and someone I love and admire, died on December 24th, 2015 after a lifelong battle with his heart. I cannot tell you how hard it was to get up the next day for Christmas and see the gifts we had for him that he would never unwrap, and never see. I wanted to go into denial, to pretend that he would come home any moment, but at the same time, I knew he would not walk through our doors again.



The next year was hard, and I think everyone understands that that first anniversary of a loved one’s death can be difficult, but the entire Christmas season caught us off guard. Seeing the Christmas decorations, hearing the music and the well wishes. It was like being reminded the entire month about the approaching anniversary of his demise. We understand, but it was still difficult to respond to questions like, “What are your Christmas plans?” and deal with people’s inquiring concerns to our replies, or try to grin and lie, pretending that we were okay because we didn’t want to upset them with phrases like, “Hiding away and pretending it doesn’t exist.” That year, we did not decorate, we did not watch Christmas movies or play games, we just had a quiet dinner with the three of us and tried to remember times that made us happy. We may have watched some VHS tapes that dad had filmed of our childhood, I do not remember if that was at Christmas time or not.

Moving Forward in New Ways

The second year was easier, if only because we were more prepared for the “Month of December.” We also made an effort that year to find something to occupy us. We spent several days cooking dinner for us to serve at Harmony House on Christmas Eve. It was a great experience and distraction. It also allowed us to give back, which was something dad valued and gave us a new meaning for the holiday. We have tried to volunteer for the last few Christmas Eves, and that has brought us warmth back to the holiday. Maybe this is the start of a new Christmas tradition for us. This year with COVID, I really have no idea what we are doing. We shall see.

About Author

Melissa Briggs is the “Dog Mom” of Dr. Briggs, a German Shepherd that she named after her father, Dr. Thomas Briggs. Melissa has a Master’s degree in art and is a lover of people and animals. She volunteers as a stage designer at the Springfield Little Theater, and as a horse handler at Dynamic Strides Therapy. Melissa has worked with her mother, Cheryl Briggs, at Derma Health in Springfield for nine years.