Leaven Blog

On the first day of Christmas, my true love passed away

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

My father died on Christmas Day, and he was my mother’s one and only true love.

He died in a hospice facility in Topeka, and it was my responsibility to drive to my mother’s house at the crack of dawn and give her the news.

In one of my most dim-witted moments, I picked up her favorite cappuccino on the way and handed it to her when she opened the door. As if that would make up for what I was about to say.

My dad was the heart and soul of our Christmas celebration. He was a gregarious prankster with a generous spirit. And this would be the last practical joke he played on our family, leaving us to mourn on the happiest day of the year.

His death was the biggest in a long line of heartaches in my life; the first of which came in college when my boyfriend dumped me for another girl.

At the time, I remember being fascinated by the fact that I really did have an ache in my chest. And in my youthful anguish, I imagined my heart full of love with no outlet to flow through; like a flooded reservoir straining against the gate of a dam.

Years later, I read a piece on grief by blogger Jamie Anderson, who put it most succinctly when she wrote about her own mother’s death.

“Grief,” she said, “is just love with no place to go.”

Grief is the heartache death leaves us, and Christmas is its bittersweet season.

It’s a surreal time for those suffering loss, because it’s hard enough to accept that life goes on without our loved ones — and during the holidays it goes on so loudly.

The overwhelming joy seems to mock our heartache and magnify our sense of loss.

I remember the first Christmas after my dad died, watching my mom brave through the functions of our family’s new normal without him. She seemed so lost.

It was like they had walked to the center of a complicated labyrinth together, and he had snuck out, leaving her without directions.

Years have passed since then, and we have all gotten better at this holiday business without our personal St. Nick. We’ve accepted the fact that we will never again be happy like we were with him. But we can be happy.

We’re whole again, but not the same.

Because the truth is, grief never dies. It lays in wait and sneaks up on you without warning.

One Christmas a few years back, a friend of mine who had recently lost her mom was out shopping. She couldn’t decide on the color of a tie for her dad. The saleslady kindly suggested, “Why don’t you call your mom and ask her?”

My friend burst into tears.

That’s what those of us who grieve during the holidays fear. That’s why we sometimes want to hide out and hope Christmas passes by without us. We don’t know when we’re going to encounter that object, or smell, or sound that makes our hearts fill up with love that has no place to go.

We don’t know when we might burst into tears.

And that’s why it’s important during the holidays to be sensitive to everyone you meet.

The cranky salespersons, the guest who doesn’t show up to your holiday party, or leaves too early — be kind and understand they may be dealing with heartache.

And for those who grieve, thank God for the compassion your experience has given you. You are well-equipped to practice the corporal work of mercy, to comfort those who mourn at this time of year.

Ask Jesus to love through you. To move your focus off your grief, and on to him, by serving others.

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.


  • My husband left me two years ago this coming Christmas Day. I was talking to him one minute, looked away and then he was gone. No matter how many times I try to understand “why Christmas” it comes back to how special he was to be called to attend the best birthday party of all. It doesn’t change the hurt and it doesn’t change how much I miss him but it does help knowing my children and grandchildren find comfort in believing it. Me, I am just lonely

  • Jill, Thank You for Sharing as it lifts us up during the Holidays, knowing the birth of Christ is What our Foundation & being Grounded spiritually.
    Hugs as my husband of eight months was lifted to Heaven. I truly believe, God brought us together for a better understanding of what TIL Death Do Us Part……means, Loving through Christ ❤️

    • My recovery sponsor/spiritual advisor died 5 years ago on Christmas day. I was at a recovery based dinner 10 miles away when I got word. My wife and I drove over to his house in disbelief. As I cried in my car in front of his house, they brought him out covered up and put him in the van. He was a very spiritual man and I a m so grateful to b a part of his life and him mine. Was honored to b a pallbearer at his service, so much more to say but little space here. TYG

  • That was a wonderful article. My husband passed away 5 years ago. I have partially healed but sometimes I just don’t want to go another place without him.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. My family has lost two beloved members this year, on January 2ndand September 7th. This is going to be the first Christmas without them physically and they will be sorely missed. We are a family of great faith though, and know that our loved ones are still with us- just in a different way. We will all be together again when God is ready for us and we look forward to that time with much hope. In the meantime, we will gather the family, open gifts and praise God that he gifted us with His Son and my sister and brother! Have a blessed Christmas everyone!

  • Excellent article
    It truly points out the importance of family.
    Even though your father’s passing was on Christmas Day, that day now gives you time to reflect on the good times with him.

  • Jill, you so eloquently expressed the hidden but very real emotion of those grieving in Christmastide. I hope many other will read your piece, find comfort and move closer to God.

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