Holidays Without Him: family defined and reformed by absence


Another holiday without him.

Christmas is coming and as usual, I’m about to head to the Midwest to spend time with my parents. This year, my mother is particularly excited because my sister will join us. Our whole family together – my sister, my parents, and me.

But that’s not our whole family. Our family hasn’t been whole for years.

Ten years ago, my brother died. Ten years of holidays without him.

It’s hard to take family pictures. It’s hard to look at family pictures. I glance at those frozen moments and quickly turn my head away. There’s always someone missing. It hurts beyond measure to know there always will be, and we can’t go back.

Four instead of five. Our family will never be whole again.

When we gather together, it’s not uncommon to look over and see my mom struggling, holding back tears. We’re together, but not all of us. There’s a hole in the room – a big, six foot five inch hole in the shape of my brother and it’s impossible to ignore. Ten Christmases without him saying something outrageous to get a rise out of me. Too many years without watching him hit his head on ceiling fans and trying not to laugh. A normal room wasn’t big enough to hold him. His love for his family, for us, was even more enormous than his colossal height.

Another holiday without him.

You’d think after ten years we’d be used to it. You know, life without him as our new normal. But grief doesn’t end and there’s nothing normal about this.

My brother left behind a wife and two very young children. Ten years later, she’s someone else’s wife and those children are no longer young. They live near my parents, so we will see each other this Christmas. I’ll get to spend time with his kids, who so remind me of him– no need for his picture when they’re in the room. And as his teenage son towers over me just like his father did, I’ll reminisce with his widow, who I still consider my sister-in-law. We’ll tell stories. We’ll laugh about that time he threw a dart in my foot as a kid and paid me a penny not to tell…and it worked.  We’ll celebrate life. We’ll enjoy being together.

But it will still be another holiday without him.

At the dinner table, surrounded by family, it’s not enough. Gathered around the tree, opening presents, the room feels empty. The sudden realization that someone’s missing is never far away. The peace of acceptance just out of reach.

This is a family defined by absence.

My brother was thirty-three when he died. You’re not supposed to die in your early thirties with a wife and two young children. Your brother isn’t supposed to die when you’re in your twenties. Your son isn’t supposed to die before you, ever.

I remember only six months between the time I found out about his cancer and the day it killed him. No time at all. I was living on the West coast. He was on the East coast. Distance shielded me from reality, from living the decline that would become his death. I wasn’t there to see it. I didn’t think he’d die. I couldn’t imagine the possibility. It truly wasn’t a concept my brain could grasp. My parents, my brother, and the twins. That was us. Our family of five. It always had been and it always would be. Sure, maybe the big guy in the photo eclipsing his 5’5” sisters was thinner these days, but he was always there. He always would be. No matter how sick he became, there was always a new treatment just around the corner, some reason to hope.

I visited my brother two weeks before he died. My sister-in-law begged me to come see him. She had been there the whole time. She watched. She saw. Her hope was tinged with reality and she urged me to come see him. Until that point, I had been planning to visit during Christmas, a few months away, as usual, but the urgency in her voice startled me. So I bought a plane ticket and left the next day, reluctantly acknowledging that everything wasn’t okay and there was a reason to go, now.

The cancer had shut down his kidneys and I didn’t recognize him when I walked into the hospital’s dialysis treatment room. He was right in front of me. Even then, when it was so bad that I had to leave the room and ask her to go in with me and show me which one was him, I held on stubbornly. He was alive. He always would be.

Two weeks later, he wasn’t anymore. The first holiday without him. Absence.

My family cannot justify his death. It was unjust. He didn’t reach the end of a long life. He didn’t achieve all his dreams. He didn’t get to try that one last treatment that would have surely been the cure. He should be here, a fact that will forever define our family’s time together. I know the scene well; on the couch, or maybe in the kitchen, my mother and I cry. Conversation turns to commiseration, year after year.

I’m not looking forward to it. I almost didn’t buy the plane ticket. Another holiday without him.

Is a family really a family when no longer complete?  What is a complete family anyway?

I struggled when my sister-in-law remarried. With everything defined by the injustice of my brother’s absence, it felt impossible to accept a new presence in her life. A replacement for him.  A family without my brother. The family-that-should-have-been no longer possible, this was a new family. This was the family that is. Would he be forgotten?

They answered my unspoken question with a vehement  NO. I’ve heard her husband, in talking to the kids, refer to their dad like it’s the most natural and normal thing in the world. I’ve heard him tell the kids how proud their dad would have been and, much less popularly, when he wouldn’t have approved of their behavior. They are adolescents, after all. Today, I’ve learned that family can evolve without forgetting. Whether it’s cooking his favorite meal on his birthday, keeping pictures of him around, or simply telling stories, they actively incorporate my brother’s memory into their new family and it’s a beautiful process.

But it doesn’t dull the pain. This will be another holiday without him.

I teach developmental psychology and I know that until age seven, children tend to believe that death is reversible. How I yearn for that ignorance. To believe I’ll see him again, that he’ll come back to us, that our family will be whole once more.  Every year I’m like a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve – the best dream of all. At any moment, he’ll duck through the front door, brushing snow from his winter coat. I’d choose that dream over reality any day. But at some point, those of us left behind must wake. Santa’s not really on his way. Even when the harshest light assails our eyelids, we cannot keep them closed forever.

So here we are, another holiday without him. It’d be foolish to think that my mom and I won’t find ourselves crying out our anger at his absence. I expect the panicked realization that he’s missing to hit me day after day.

Shortly after he died, I found myself talking about him during a car ride with a friend and her very spiritual mother, who insisted I stop talking about him in the past tense. “He is here,” her ethereal voice assured me. Aside from wondering if there was pot in the car (this was in California, after all), I found it an eccentric but comforting notion. Sure, it may be kooky, but who cares when you’re grieving. I imagined him sitting next to me in the back seat, all the while knowing I’d never actually see him there.  Of course, we’ll never forget Jonathan, but he won’t ever be here, with us, again. His is an irreversible absence that makes our family incomplete. To deny that would be to deny the power of his presence.

Perhaps a family is never complete. With both loss and gain, we evolve. This Christmas, we will have grown to include new members of my sister-in-law’s family; a family  that we never envisioned or expected, but one that we love. Sure, we hate the reason for it, but we love them. So I’ll look forward to that time.

This will most certainly be another holiday without my brother, but it will also be a holiday with them.

Ashley Maier
Ashley Maier is a psychology professor in Los Angeles. She spends her days reading student papers and, occasionally, doing some writing of her own.


  1. As I’ve gotten older, and loss becomes more frequent ~ often more intimate; I find the space for the new (not replacements) feels different. There’s always room for more love, but I feel protective of that space as if it still belongs to the person who is missing. The permanency of loss and never-ending grief are so hard to describe. You’ve done it well here – with tenderness for new family. Thank you for writing this.

  2. This was like an arrow straight through my heart…I am living in the newness of losing my own brother and am so surprised by the level of my grief. i have lost many others but this…maybe it’s age or the fact I’ve lost so many or the simple fact that this great guy…my irish twin just 11 months older…shared every moment of my life…that loss of history is as difficult as not be able to sit and talk with him anymore.

  3. I was lucky enough to have known Laura and Jonathan. They were beautiful together and I’ll always remember Jonathan as the man full of sunshine.


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