The year Jeff died in a military plane crash I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through the Christmas season, but I knew I had to for the sake of my then 3- and 5-year-old boys. I didn’t want my grief to take the magic out of the season for them.
As I was finishing the wrapping on Christmas Eve night and getting ready to place the presents in front of the tree, I had an incredible moment. For a brief time, I felt Jeff’s presence. Not only did I feel his presence, but I could actually feel an excitement I can’t even begin to explain. It was his excitement, and it was at that moment I realized even though it is now me doing the shopping and getting everything ready, he is the one who will always be Santa in our house.
Jeff always loved Christmas. He loved getting the presents together, and most of all he loved playing Santa for the boys. I will never forget our first Christmas with kids old enough to understand Santa Claus. We were both so excited about all which Santa Claus brought to the table, but when it came time to put the presents out on Christmas Eve, we found we had a difference in opinion as to how to actually display them. I thought the presents should be around the tree, but Jeff was adamant they get piled in front so it would look like there were more than there actually were. He was set on doing it this way, so how could I disagree? He must have spent an hour or more organizing the presents so they were perfect for the boys in the morning, and I can still hear his giddy laughter that night as I watched him work.
It is a memory I will never forget.
My husband Jeff and I both enlisted in the Air Force shortly after graduating high school and met while in Technical Training School not long after finishing Basic Training. We were married only a year later at just 19 years old and were excited to be able to spend our lives together in the Air Force. A few years down the road, Jeff was accepted into the pilot training program, so I decided to take a step back and separate from the military to follow him and support his career, a decision I never regretted. He eventually got his dream assignment flying C-17s in Alaska and life was good.
Then on July 28th, 2010, my world came to a stop. Jeff’s plane crashed, killing all four crew members on board. In an instant I went from military spouse to military widow and was thrown on a grief journey I never wanted to be on.
Grief can be hard all on its own, but when holidays start to roll in they can add a whole other level to the hurt grief brings. This is especially true during Christmas. The Christmas season is a beautiful and joyous time of year. It is a season of love, thankfulness, giving, family and so much more.
However, when you have lost someone close to you, sometimes that joy and happiness can be a bit harder to find. Instead, Christmas may bring difficult days and a wrenching heartache from knowing that special person will be missing from the family photos. Even through the heartache, though, there are always ways to remember our loved ones and keep them close at heart during the holiday season.
So far, this holiday season has mirrored just that. After finishing Christmas shopping for my two boys, I got in the car and cried. Not only did I cry, but it was one of those hard cries with tears I hadn’t let out in a long time. This grief journey my boys and I have been put on is hard, and I hate living this life without my husband here. He should be part of it, and especially a part of this season — not only because it is a family holiday, but because Christmas was always his holiday. Shopping for the boys is something we should be doing together, and his absence in that process created a harsh sting I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.
Christmas was his holiday, not mine.
While some of our traditions have changed over the years since Jeff’s death, the boys and I still find ways to keep him a part of our Christmas. The first year Jeff and I were married we bought each other Hallmark ornaments that had some kind of meaning from the year, and Jeff still gets his ornament put on the tree along with ours. We still bake his favorite cookies (peanut butter with a Hershey kiss in top), and we giggle as we eat them, because since he didn’t actually like chocolate, his never ate the kiss. To him they were really just peanut butter cookies with a special Christmas title. But even so, he would get so excited he had his own special Christmas cookies.
We still hang Jeff’s stocking, but we don’t put any presents in it. Instead, the boys draw pictures and write letters and put those in his stocking with the idea Santa will deliver them to their dad in Heaven. Although Jeff is not physically here, he is never far from our thoughts and he will always be a part of our Christmas.
While we continue to find ways to keep Jeff a part of the holiday, the presence of the season still can’t take away the sting of his absence. It is during those times especially that I am so thankful we have our TAPS Family to turn to. TAPS has been there for us from the very beginning and they have gotten us through the most difficult years of our lives by giving us an incredible amount of support, friendship, and especially love. They are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide us with whatever it is we may need. They have given me advice on how to handle different situations, information on various things military related, other widow connections and people to bond and share stories with — and even a place for my kids to go to where they can share stories of their dad and their grief as well as meet other children who have lost a parent in the military. Perhaps the biggest support for me, though, was just having a listening ear from someone who understood what I was going through. TAPS was there for all of these things, and I can honestly say we wouldn’t be where we are today without their endless love and support.
Because, more than anything, they reminded us we are never alone in this grief journey. There are others who have gone down this path before us and are now willing walk beside us as we traverse down ours as well. That is an incredible gift that can help so many people who are hurting, especially during the Christmas season.
With the focus of Christmas so centered around family, it can be hard to go through the season missing someone so dearly. However, instead of focusing on what is missing I try to center my focus on what is present. My boys are an amazing blessing. We have our health, we have a wonderful extended family and friends all over the world who have become like family and we have our incredible TAPS Family.
But perhaps most of all, we have the love in our hearts of a man who loved us truly and deeply. That in itself is a gift like none other and one I will cherish not only through the holidays, but throughout each year, every year. Even through the hurt of loss, I still feel extremely blessed.
Rachael Hill is a veteran of the United States Air Force and the surviving spouse of Captain Jeffrey Hill. They have two sons, Tristan and Tyler. Jeff was killed in a C-17 plane crash on July 28, 2010 on Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Rachael and her sons now live in Minnesota. In addition to her current Financial Management and Business Administration degrees, she has recently started pursuing a Master’s Degree in Thanatology. With this degree, she hopes to work with others who have also lost a loved one in the military and help them through their grief journeys a well.