Grief During the Holidays :: Life After Adult Sibling Loss


It seems the holiday season is upon us in full force yet again. There are so many things I love about this time of year, from the food to the family time to the special church services; however, the holidays also bring back the now familiar pangs of loss.

Sibling Loss

My family at my wedding in August 2011. Photo courtesy of Jessica Wright Photography

Losing an adult sibling is a lonely thing. It’s lonely partly because it’s not discussed as often as many other losses, but there are so many different types of relationships between siblings that it’s hard to discuss it accurately for everyone, anyways. I lost my older brother, Daniel, in January of 2012, at 26 years of age to cancer. He was just 3.5 years older than me, and we were always close. We even willingly lived together when were in college! Needless to say, continuing family traditions when such a big part of the family is missing is not an easy thing, so holidays can be difficult around here.

I remember going Christmas shopping when I always bought gifts for my mom, my dad, and my brother. I remember having small, immediate family Thanksgiving meals with a random assortment of sides because Daniel was such a picky eater. Now, I shop for one less family member at Christmas. We have a traditional Thanksgiving meal every November. His birthday comes and goes without a phone call or silly Facebook post teasingly calling him “Gramps.”

My kids will create their holiday traditions without ever knowing one of the most important people in my life. November and December are rife with emotions for me, but after eight years, and with God’s grace, I am getting better at handling them.

Acknowledging Pain

Grief during the holidays -- sibling loss
My brother’s headstone. The quote is his own.

I think one of the most important things to know when dealing with loss is that grief must be faced. Many years on the first day of December, I will make time to acknowledge what is missing and let myself feel my emotions deeply. (Does that basically mean I let myself have a good cry? Yes, it does. It’s cathartic and running away from emotions only makes them worse in the long run. It can also harm overall physical health.) Living in denial of deep sadness makes everything harder than it should be, and it robs the present of the joy of happy memories.

Saying and hearing my brother’s name is also beneficial. My family doesn’t shy away from talking about him at our yearly holiday gatherings. We don’t ignore his birthday. We don’t pretend the gaping hole in our family isn’t there. We talk about him like normal. We acknowledge the meal we’re having is absolutely not what we’d be eating if he were still here. My parents keep many pictures of him around, and my girls already know who their Uncle Daniel is, even though they will never get to meet him on this earth. Thankfully, I am able to use that opportunity to talk to them about heaven and how comforting it is to know that he’s happy now even though we miss him.

Recalling Good Times

Performers at the Annual Daniel Helton Memorial Scholarship Benefit Concert in 2019.

One of the most beneficial things for me has been our annual fundraiser for the scholarship that has been created in my brother’s name, given out annually at our high school. On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, Daniel’s musical family and friends all get together and perform in remembrance of him. It’s tremendously comforting for me to be in a group of people brought together by little more than our shared grief. I know that I was the only biological sibling Daniel had, but seeing our friends, especially those who were close to him, helps me feel less alone.

I know that scenario isn’t an option for many who’ve lost siblings, but being around his close friends has been one of the best ways for me to vividly recollect the many good times we had together. I highly recommend connecting with friends of someone you’ve lost if you need help celebrating the life you had before their death.

Celebrating Advent

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

One last thing I do every year is meditate on the meaning of Advent. As a Christian who has always celebrated Christmas, it’s taken me until my adult years to fully appreciate the season leading up to Christmas Day, known as Advent. This is a season that focuses on fostering a deep longing for God to make all things right, and as someone who has lived through intense grief, this desire is something I intimately understand. So, this holiday season, I will help cook a Thanksgiving meal full of expected dishes. I will shop for my loved ones and probably find the perfect gift for a brother I no longer shop for. I will sit with my grief and acknowledge a birthday that isn’t coming. Most important of all, I will look to the One who brings joy to this world and remember the true reason for this emotional season.

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Ashley lives in Leeds but is originally from the small, one-redlight town of Grant in North Alabama. She attended Auburn University where she met her husband, Ryan, and married him a couple of months after getting her Bachelors degree in 2011. Although she studied PreMed/Microbiology, she has never actually worked in the field. Instead, she has had many random jobs from seamstress to private English tutor to while helping her husband through seminary. Now she has her dream job of being a stay-at-home-mom to her two daughters; E is 4 and M is 2. Although her original dream of living overseas full-time isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, she is still involved in the internationals’ ministry at her church. When Ashley is not busy with her girls or church, she can be found cooking, scouring the internet for good deals, listening to music or podcasts, reading, or drinking coffee while doing any of the above.