"Pictures on the nightstand, TV's on in the den

Your house is waiting . . . for you to walk in

But you're missing"

From "You're Missing"

by Bruce Springsteen

Tomorrow will be Linda's first Christmas without her husband. They had been happily married for 20 years, and their two teenage daughters were doing well. Then, one day in February, she received a call at work: Her apparently healthy 55-year-old husband had just suffered a fatal heart attack.

In the last 10 months, Linda and her daughters went through every stage of grief at least once. They endured the difficulties of first birthdays without Dad, and then first summer vacation. But somehow the first Christmas feels different, more difficult. Before her husband died, the holiday ritual was to spend Christmas Day with Linda's extended family. This year, Linda really doesn't want to do anything for the holidays, but she doesn't want to deprive her daughters. Yet none of them feel very joyous.

Meanwhile, Linda's sisters are telling her she should celebrate the holidays with them just as she did every other year. Maintaining consistency, they say, will be good for everyone. Like most people who feel sad or depressed around the holidays, these well-meaning people trying to do the right thing only make Linda feel more alone.

What should Linda and her daughters do? That's easy. They should each plan to do whatever would give them the most comfort that day. They could choose to stay home and celebrate quietly. They could go to the cemetery, or to her sister's, or they could hang out with friends or volunteer at a hospital. But whatever they do, each one of them should have the option to switch plans whenever she needs to.

And everyone who loves them should be supportive of their plan.

Support does not mean encouragement. It does not mean reassurance or advice. Nor does it mean acting strong when you, too, are hurting.

Support means listening. Support sometimes means tolerating a loved one's suffering in silence. It means being available to the person in grief, even when it hurts to do so.

Support is also about faith - having faith in the resilient spirit of those you love without needing to reassure them that one day they will experience joy again. It means having faith that if you need to cry with them, they will not break.

Everybody thinks pain is the problem when a loved one is grieving. It's not. Pain is a way of feeling connected to those we love. The pain is a combination of feeling love for those we've lost and longing for them to be with us in body. The loving feels good and the longing hurts, but they are often impossible to separate. That's why trying to talk people out of their pain usually makes it worse.

Last summer, my 7-year-old grandson, Sam, asked me how old he would be when I died. He was clearly uncomfortable. He said he was afraid of my dying because he would miss me so badly. When I then asked him what he thought would happen to me after I died, he described his own version of heaven. "Well, Sam," I wondered, "do you believe that I will still love you if I am in heaven?" Sam thought for a minute, and said, "Sure." And he said he would still be loving me, too. Then I wondered if he would be able to feel me loving him after I was gone. He thought about that for a long time before saying that he would. He thought he would always be able to feel my love for him.

And maybe that's why it hurts around the holidays. Maybe it's simply because we can feel the love better.

Dear readers:

I am going to take some time off for R & R. I'll be back at the end of February, and we can still stay in touch through my Web site.

Family therapist Dan Gottlieb's "Voices in the Family" airs Mondays at noon on WHYY-FM (90.9). On the Web: www.drdangottlieb.com.