Navigating Your First Holiday Season Without a Loved One

By Mavia Hanson, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessDecember 21, 2023

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The holiday season is usually considered a time of year when most are celebrating being joyous and bright. For those enduring their first holiday season without a loved one, it can be particularly sad and disorienting. The daunting task of gathering family and friends can seem challenging and painful or prompt more grief. “Sometimes people have an idea of how we should grieve, some type of timeline,” says Karen Mojecki, Gold Star mother of the late Maj. Wesley James Hinkley. “Don’t let other people put expectations on you. Do what’s right for you; do what you have the energy for.” Her son died on April 4, 2011, in Baghdad, Iraq.

“The important thing to remember is, there’s no right way to grieve,” Mojecki says, describing her first Christmas without her son as a fog. “It was eight months later and still a fog, but the neat thing I kept remembering is my son’s personal motto: 'My mission in life is to feed the world.' So he would buy me cookbooks. That first year, I made a cookie recipe from one of the books and took them to share with his unit battle buddies. It was a way we could all share in celebrating Wes’s life.”

For Mojecki, that was the start of a series of traditions she began practicing annually to help share and keep alive her son’s legacy.

Aaron Hudgins, the husband of the late Staff Sgt. Jari “JJ” Jeanine Hudgins, who died on April 29, 2019, had a very difficult first Christmas. “We were a blended Family with five children, three sons and two girls. Our world changed immediately,” Hudgins says. “The girls left immediately to live with their father, so it felt as if our Family was even further apart. Their biological father was a nice guy, and we were still able to visit each other, but the shock of everything initially was rough.” He shares that what really helped during that time was not dwelling on the negative but focusing on the good times they had together. “The children really helped with that. They’d remember all the funny moments we’d all shared, and they’d bring them up constantly and we’d all laugh together. The laughter helped. The kids wanted to talk about her. It’s amazing all the funny little things they’d remember, down to the most minuscule memories. They’d bring it up in those first days— laughter was really the best medicine.”

Here are some tips from Mojecki and Hudgins to consider when navigating your first holiday.

·      Be gentle with yourself, and don’t expect to do everything solo. Share the responsibilities for the holiday when you can.

·      Don’t be afraid to try a new tradition— whether it is a twist on an old tradition or starting a new one.

·      Don’t dwell on the negative aspects; remember the good times.

·      Don’t be afraid to laugh and include your deceased loved one in your celebrations. There’s no right or wrong way to feel, and including memories of your loved one can make a big difference.

·      Respect your own grief. There is no need to hide the pain you feel from family and friends.

·      Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like heavy drinking, and protect your mental health to lessen the strain of this holiday season.

Know that wherever you are in your grief journey, Survivor Outreach Services is available. SOS is the official Army program designed to provide long-term support to Families of fallen Soldiers. If you are a surviving Family member, SOS is here for you.

SOS coordinators and financial counselors provide support to survivors, regardless of a loved one’s Army component, duty status, location or manner of death.

SOS serves Army National Guard, Army Reserve and active-duty Families at offices across the country. For more information on the SOS program and locating a coordinator, visit: https://