The gifts were all beautifully and lovingly wrapped, and placed carefully under the tree, name tags reading “To Mom” with love. You’d had so much fun shopping this year. It seemed like you had no trouble finding gifts for anyone, especially for her. And you couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to see her face when she opened those special gifts you’d gotten for her. It was going to be the best Christmas ever!
But then, the phone call came; or the knock on the door. And all of your Christmas plans were suddenly and irreversibly changed.
Because your world was turned upside down. And instead of merry and joyful, you were sad beyond belief, and plunged into a sea of grief and sorrow that you didn’t know existed. Unfortunately, it did. And now you were living in it, drowning in it.
And all those gifts suddenly became awful reminders that your world would never be the same, and for the next several years, Christmas would no longer be your favorite holiday, but a reminder of the deepest hurt you’ve ever felt.
Instead of having a huge family dinner, with lighted candles and your best china, you’re planning a funeral. Instead of selecting your best holiday attire, you’re searching through your closet for your most somber outfit, and selecting the final outfit that she’ll ever wear.
Christmas? It’s the furthest thing from your mind.
Until you look under the tree and those gifts are staring you in the face. You’d interspersed hers with everyone else’s as you usually did, so it would be more fun handing them out. Now you see each and every one of them as if they were all placed together in one pile. A painful reminder staring you in the face that she’s not going to be opening them. Ever.
So what do you do with the gifts?
That may sound trivial in the overall scheme of events. Some may say it’s a selfish question. Or it may sound like a simple question, one easily answered, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth of that question.
The gifts were bought for her. Wrapped with your love in brightly colored paper; tied with holiday ribbon by your own hands. To be given with love. Now they’re a painful reminder; a stab to the heart when you see them. The act of opening them when they aren’t supposed to be yours, when they were bought as gifts for your loved one, is something you can’t bring yourself to do.
If you haven’t experienced it, you cannot imagine the pain. It’s one thing to not be able to buy gifts for her that first Christmas she’s gone; it’s entirely another to have to do something with gifts already wrapped and tagged.
A friend of mine unfortunately found herself in this situation many years ago. Fortunately her husband stepped in one morning and took the gifts and put them somewhere so she didn’t have to deal with that, as well as everything else. To this day she has no idea what he did with them. Which is probably just as well.
The best advice I can give? Do what feels right for you. Have someone else handle it if you just don’t think you can. There’s no shame in that, and there’s nothing to be embarrassed over.
After all, you have enough on your mind. It’s not about the money, the cost of the gifts. It’s about your emotional well-being, and how you can best begin to heal after a traumatic loss. But it’s unfortunately something that comes up when a loved one passes away this time of year. And I’ve seen nothing written about it; no suggestions of ways to best deal with the situation and the emotions it brings.
There are a few suggestions I can offer that I’ve heard from others who’ve gone through this, instead of returning the gifts, either before or after the holiday.
One family donated the gifts to a local shelter, still wrapped, with the name tag changed to simply read “from [their loved one’s name]”. That way they knew the gifts would be put to good use and brighten someone else’s Christmas, as well as allow their loved one to make a final contribution to a charitable cause.
Another family decided to give each family member one of their loved one’s gifts to open in her memory, and then decide whether to keep it as a memento of her, or give it to someone else who would enjoy or need it. As each person opened the gift, they told a story about what their loved one would have probably said about the gift; and of course that also came with a lot of tears.
One other family said they changed the tags to “from [loved one’s name] all the way from heaven” and hid the non-personal gifts around the house to be found throughout the year. Clothing gifts were donated to charity.
It’s not easy losing a loved one at any time, but during the holiday season that loss is magnified, and any reminders of what has been lost can bring on the sadness and depression at any point. It’s natural. And expected. Leaving their Christmas gifts around can make it worse, but so can the decisions of what to do with them.
Bear in mind what your loved one would want you to do as well, if you can. Sometimes it’s hard to see further than the next few hours, let alone the next few days.
The best advice I can give…do what’s right for you. And don’t let anyone’s criticisms change your actions. Unfortunately one day they may go through this as well, if they haven’t already.
Hang in there. It does get easier over time. Next Christmas will be better. The memories will linger, and although you don’t think so now, they will gradually get easier to remember.