When Nancy Taylor was a child, her father would always tell her he hated to see the holidays come.
At the time, she didn't understand why her father called Christmas a sad time. For a child, she said, Christmas is fun.
Now, with both of her parents gone, Taylor understands.
"I now know what he meant," said Taylor, 62. "I've been saying, 'I'll be glad when it's over.'"
Taylor isn't alone. In Lawrence and across the state, hospice centers fill with those mourning a loved one. The holiday season, counselors say, sparks memories of time together as a family - a family that, for some, isn't around anymore.
"It's supposed to be a happy season," said Gillian Woods, bereavement director at Heart of America Hospice. "But they're not happy."
A Christmas song
Whomever someone has lost - a parent, a child, a spouse - the memories rush back at Christmastime.
Woods has heard the stories, the words blended with sobs. Every step is overwhelming, she said. Putting up decorations, wrapping presents.
"A lot of people just want to erase everything about Christmas," Woods said. "And they do."
There is a certain pressure, she said, to put on a happy face for the holidays. Even close family doesn't always understand why a Christmas song or an old family ornament can stir tears.
People don't know what to say, Woods said. So, often, they say nothing - no phone calls, no cards.
But what they need now, at Christmas, she said, is a kind word, arms wrapped around them.
'Muddle through it'
Not quite a year and a half ago, Gini Wigington's husband, Henry, died of a brain tumor. When he was diagnosed around Christmas 2001, doctors told him he had only a few months to live.
"He fooled a lot of doctors," Wigington said.
She assumed that Henry would die some other way. He flew planes for years, did a tour above the treetops of Vietnam for the Air Force. She figured his plane would go down, that an officer would knock on her door one day and deliver the news.
When he survived the war and they continued to pass the years together, the 74-year-old Wigington thought they still had plenty of years in them.
Monday will mark her second Christmas alone. The second Christmas is the hardest, hospice workers say, the time when reality sets in and the support system the year before may have moved on.
When Henry was first diagnosed, Wigington said, all of their friends were shocked, stuck close by for support. Once Henry died, their friends weren't so close anymore.
"It's very, very lonesome," she said. "No one wants to be about death - not even at Christmas."
Wigington has two adult children, and both live out of town. She spent last Christmas in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her daughter. It helped, she said.
But this year, Wigington will stay in her house in Lawrence and just "muddle through it," she said.
It won't be easy, she knows. At a recent hospice meeting, she told the others, "It feels like you have a vacant place, a hole inside of you. At Christmas, it feels like that hole is getting larger."
You're not alone
If you are grieving this holiday season, contact: ¢ Heart of America Hospice in Lawrence at 841-5300 ¢ Headquarters Counseling Center: 841-2345, or in Baldwin City: 594-6490 If someone you know is grieving, counselors recommend: ¢ Staying in touch over the holidays. Even a phone call helps. ¢ Letting people know you are thinking of them by inviting them to dinner or checking in on them. ¢ Make time to listen, look at pictures - whatever the person may need.
Sometimes, they call Woods at her office. Once in a long while, they'll come to her Heart of America Hospice center in Topeka.
But, more often than not, Woods meets them at home, at Christmastime.
They show her things they surround themselves with. They are, Woods said, the things that allow their loved ones to be with them, even when they are gone. Photos, Woods said, "always the photos."
The love appears in different ways, Woods said. Holiday meals always come up, she said, because food is what families socialize around.
When a loved one dies, though, sometimes old family traditions and recipes die with them.
"They're too in pain," Woods said. "They just don't want to do it."
How much she remembered
"If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever."
The words sit by a picture of Nancy Taylor's parents in her home, up on the mantle near her fireplace.
Around the holidays, Taylor said the words mean so much more.
Her mother died last November, her father just a few years before. Now, all Taylor has to remember of her parents are those words, the photos, the snowman and the nativity scene hanging from the tree.
But the ham sandwiches are gone.
They weren't much, just ham and Swiss, but every Christmas Eve after late church services, her mother would put out a tray of them. It was tradition, all she knew as a child.
"It's like it wasn't Christmas Eve if you didn't have them," Taylor said.
Home for Christmas
When her husband, Henry, was still alive, Wigington always loved Christmas. She was an only child, and her parents made the holiday a big deal. Once married, Henry played along.
But Wigington said her husband, while with the Air Force, always seemed to be overseas or at a base when the holidays came around. So she grew used to traveling to see him, wherever he was.
Her home, she said, became wherever her husband was.
"Home is where the person who completes you is," Wigington said.
So now, she said, it doesn't matter where she is, whether it's Grand Rapids, Mich., or Lawrence.
She still can't go home for Christmas.