Traditions Died Too

Bart Sumner, holidaysMy 10-year-old son died during the first couple of weeks of October 2009. Between that day he died and the new year there was Halloween, my 7-year-old daughter Abby’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Eve.

It was a very rough time trying to deal with the sudden absence of our son, and still trying to move forward. It was important to my wife and I that even though we knew nothing would ever be the same again, we attempt to give our daughter as close to a regular holiday season as we could possibly manage.

Of course this was not going to happen, but we tried. That first year everything screamed “David.” New traditions were born in his name, and old ones, some of which we had been practicing for years, died along with David.

The main tradition that died was the holiday card. There was just simply no way I was going to go through the motions of addressing holiday cards to a bunch of people, many of whom we only ever communicated with this one time a year.

Those that were actually in our lives knew exactly how the year had gone. It had been disastrous. The news of David’s death had spread quickly to many people that can only be considered acquaintances. Anyone who was on our list that had not heard of his tragic accident surely did not want to get the holiday card and letter where somewhere down in the letter, after we mentioned how school was going well and the pets were happy, we would slip in, “Oh yes, and David started his 4th year of football and then died on the practice field in October. Happy Holidays!”

The interesting thing, though, was those letters had been a sort of once a year written history of our life together. Leslie and I had written the first letter the year we were engaged and every year those letters would herald moves, births, and all the other major events in our lives.

So that year instead of a newsletter per se, we wrote a New Years letter for those who had been through the nightmare with us. We thanked them for the kindnesses they had showed my wife and I and Abby, and talked about looking forward to leaving the horrible year that was ending behind and moving forward as best we could.

But instead of spending a lot of money on cards and stamps, we emailed it to the people who were actually in our lives. The truth is, the Internet, which had been abuzz with the horrible news of David’s death had really made the once a year holiday letter obsolete. We had many people in our lives online, and most, even the remote acquaintances, knew what was happening from Facebook.

Every year in the last 4 years we have written that New Years letter, and it seems it gets sent out to fewer and fewer people, and we post it now online for those that care to can read it. But it has become important as a written history of our family, where we were, and what was happening. Some day Abby will sit and dig through the letters she finds, perhaps after Leslie and I are gone, and it will be a touchstone for her, of who we were, and what we lived through and survived.

The other tradition that died for me was going to church. I was never a big church going man. I had attended on and off, sung in the choir for several years, and almost always would go on Christmas Eve or day, usually to a music service. But to be honest, church holds no allure for me now. I tip my hat to those that can find comfort in religion, but the exclusionary nature of most religions had always left a bad taste in my mouth.

The message I have always gotten over the years is that God is love, and if that is the case, the concept of punishment in Hell, or there being only one religion that is the “truth” seems completely hypocritical to me. After David died, I lost patience in things that I felt were a waste of time. To me attending church fits this category.

I was and will always be a hopeful believer in a higher power, but certainly the awesome being that created our world knows we are imperfect and certainly would not be so vain as to expect us to bow down and pay tribute. The idea any supreme being would have “vanity,” the most ugly of human failings, seems downright silly to me.

So instead, I choose take the time at the holidays making sure those that I love, and that love me, know how important they are to me. After all, as they sing about in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” And I make sure that my love extends to those that might not have love in their lives. I make sure that some hungry are fed, and some that are cold feel warmth.

Our David use to love making sandwiches from holiday party leftovers and sharing them with people in need. My wife and I give a donation every year to a shelter, either of food or money or both. David would like that. I like that. I feel it is the most holy of things we cane do during the holidays. But church, that I don’t do.

There is a new tradition that really is just doing for my wife and David what he can no longer do. Every year my wife gets a gift from David. Often it is something that a kid would give. One year it was warm robe with Eeyore on it. It always comes from David and is addressed to “Mother.” She said it always made her feel old when he would call her “mother,” but after he was gone, the same little annoying term became very dear to her.

It’s never a big thing, and last year I even worried that perhaps it would upset her getting a gift again from David. I mused that maybe the time had come not to do it, that it would only make her cry. But I have learned that there is nothing I have to do to remind her he is not with us on Christmas.

Just like me, she thinks of him with every Christmas carol, and every light on the tree. His smiling face adorns a few different ornaments on the tree. The act of decorating brings back fond memories of him. Every year we even hang a stupid ornament that came with a generic picture of a boy smiling that we always joked we should replace with a picture of David.

We never did, but every time we hang that ornament we think of David and laugh. The present David gave her last year did make her cry, not when she got it, but I saw it a little later that day. And that brings me to another new tradition at the holidays.


Our holidays now always include tears at some point that are in honor of our boy who is no longer here. And those tears are good. Like all the tears we have shed since the day he died, they are tears of love. They remind us that for ten short years there was someone here with us who we loved so much, and were loved back in return.

That kind of love never goes away. And the tears remind us we are alive and that we can still love. In a strange way I welcome the tears every year. It reminds me of how much I miss him, but also reminds me to love those around me today, because none of us knows if we will be here next Christmas or even tomorrow.

David is now a holiday memory. Like the greatest presents we ever got as a child or the first Christmas spent with the love of your life. It is a memory that is golden and untouchable.

Like all those great holiday memories, he becomes more dear ever year. He should be here with us, making more memories, but he cannot be, so instead he occupies that most sacred of places in our hearts. And he brings love and depth to every passing holiday season.

His last Christmas, we laid on the landing high above our Christmas tree in the living room, and I shared stories with him about Christmases when I was young.  I told him the dreams I use to have, and the things I wanted for Christmas. I told him that I always dreamed that some day I would have a son to share the holiday traditions with, and that that was the reason it meant so much to me to decorate the tree together and how to me there was nothing more special than the glow of the lights on that tree.

They still hold that same magic for me. But they are different today. They are different because of David.

Merry Christmas pal, I miss you so much.

Thanks to guest author Bart Sumner for sharing his story. Bart’s daughter has attended two Comfort Zone Camps and says they “gave her some great support to see her through the nightmare of losing her brother.” You can read more from Bart on his Healing Improv blog.


  1. Daisy said on December 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm ... #

    “Tears” as a holiday tradition is poignant and bravely said. Thank you for this article, Bart.

  2. Monica Holloway said on December 5, 2013 at 6:05 pm ... #

    A brave and beautifully written tribute, not only to the author’s son, but to this honest, love-filled, grief-stricken family who just taught me more about grace than anything I’ve ever read. Thank you, Bart Sumner! Merry Christmas to all
    of you. Thank you for sharing David with us.

  3. Becca said on December 23, 2013 at 7:06 pm ... #

    So sorry for your loss. The loss of a child is supposedly the most painful. There is almost never one single day in my life that i do not cry; it only changes in how much of my day is devoted to uncontrollable mourning.

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