After losing someone close to you, the holidays are never the same again.  That doesn’t mean the holidays are not special or enjoyable, but they are different and always will be.  The year John passed away, I was dreading the holidays and was thinking I might need to find a way to skip them.  Some of my hope sisters have shared how they have survived the holidays, formed new traditions, and found ways to be grateful.

From the first Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas without him, it was all about survival.  That’s it… just getting through it.  We managed to survive the first holidays by traveling.  I thought perhaps I was being selfish by leaving every tradition behind and just leaving, but when you are in deep, raw pain from a loss, you need to give yourself grace.

For the first Thanksgiving holiday without John, we went to NYC.  We did not know a soul in NYC, however, the thought of going to a city with over 8 million people seemed like a great place to distract ourselves.  John did not like crowds so NYC during the holidays would never be a place he would agree to go, so we went because we (the survivors) wanted to.  We did a lot of shopping and sight-seeing and went to some shows.  We ate some great food, too.  I would not recommend Black Friday shopping in Times Square, however.  The crowds were nothing like I had ever seen.  We live in the D.C. metro area, and we are used to large numbers of people everywhere.  The Thanksgiving holiday was all about distractions, and the crowds did distract us for certain.

For the first Christmas without John, I wanted to go someplace new.  My daughter and I traveled to the Cayman Islands.  We had multiple difficulties getting where we were staying.  Our flight was delayed for hours so we arrived at night.  The Cayman Islands do not have lighted streets, very limited street signs, and they drive on the left-hand side of the road.  I rented a car and honestly thought we would have to camp on the side of the road because the GPS on the cell phone wouldn’t get a signal.  John was always the driver and I was the navigator.  Now, my daughter was the navigator, which was near impossible most of the time without GPS or street signs, and my driving was not too great while getting accustomed to roundabouts or traffic circles while driving on the left-side.  Lots of distractions!

The purpose of our trip to the Cayman Islands was to finish our Open Diving Scuba certification.  Looking back, that seems like a lofty goal shortly after my beloved husband and Katie’s father had died.  Scuba diving was an intense and amazing distraction.  We have wonderful memories of that beautiful island.  We also had multiple difficulties getting our scuba certification.  Katie became seasick on the day of the final test.  She was not able to complete the skills because she kept vomiting.  The windy conditions contributed to the roughness of the water and the boat was nowhere close to being steady.  However, after a few days, the weather calmed down, and we went back out for a second try.  This time, there was minimal sea sickness and we both passed our tests.

In the present day, we are living with COVID-19 and large crowds and travel are not an option for a distraction.  Life is continually changing and moves forward.  The way I made it through the first holidays was to do something completely different and out of my normal comfort zone.  I am fortunate to have found a new love and we spent our first Thanksgiving together this year.  I will always miss John during the holidays, no matter where I am.  Surviving the first 3 years without him, was just that, surviving.  Now, however, I don’t want to just survive… but to LIVE through the holidays.  May God bless each of you with his grace and love as you navigate through the holidays without your loved ones.


Northern Virginia has been Jennifer Carstens’ home since she was a teenager. She met John when she was working at the D.E.A. Headquarters in Arlington, VA, during the summer when she was in college. Honestly, it was love at first sight for both of them. He had a way about him that made her feel like everything was going to be okay. They were married 4 years later and lived happily for the next 21 years. While their lives were not
flawless, they were close to perfection. Their daughter had just turned 16 when tragedy struck on March
11, 2017. John was healthy and happy, but suffered a massive brain stem hemorrhagic stroke. Much to
their horror, he slipped into a coma, and would never wake again. He was 49-years young. Their daughter
is now 18 and they are still piecing together their ‘new normal.

Jennifer believes he would be proud of the ways they are moving forward. They continue to seek peace and healing through humor, love, and sometimes tears.