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Many will be missing from holiday tables this year. Traditions help with coping.

"Many people are in deep, deep pain. The sad thing is that until somebody close to them dies from Covid, most people just don't get it," a grief expert said.
Image: Petronila Maria Leon.
Petronila Maria León.Courtesy Kenia Leon

By now the Christmas tree would be festooned with ornaments, and presents would be nestled beneath its branches.

The colored lights would be twinkling, stockings would be hung with care, and a small army of Santas would stand watch over the candy canes and snow globes and other Christmas bric-a-brac scattered around the living room.

And Kenia León would be looking forward to the smell of her mother's lechon, a slowly roasted suckling pig, as it filled their house in Las Vegas with its aroma.

"At this point, our house would have looked like a Macy's store window," said León, 40. "My mother's favorite holiday was Christmas. The tree was up even before the Thanksgiving turkey was in the oven."

But not this year.

León's mother, Petronila Maria León, 75, died in April from Covid-19. And the chair where she always sat during the family's traditional Cuban Christmas Eve feast will be empty.

Image: House decorations
The Leóns' house decorated for Christmas 2019.Courtesy Kenia Leon

This is likely to be a subdued holiday season for many Americans, cut off from kin and unable to hold traditional celebrations because of a virus that has infected more than 17 million people across the United States and which — according to the latest NBC News data — continues to claim new victims at an alarming pace.

But it will be especially lonely for the families of the more than 300,000 people in the U.S. who were killed by this cruel virus, said David Kessler, one of the country's leading grief counselors.

Kenia Leon at the cemetery where her mother's ashes are interred in Las Vegas.
Kenia León at the cemetery where her mother's ashes are interred in Las Vegas.Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News

"It will be a holiday season like no other, because we haven't seen the funerals like after 9/11 or after the AIDS crisis," said Kessler, author of "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief." "This will be such an isolating Christmas."

León, still recovering from her own battle with the coronavirus, said it's unlikely that her brother and his new wife will join her for the holiday. They, too, came down with coronavirus infections and won't risk getting sick again.

"I'm not sure if I have the strength to put up the tree or decorate by myself," she said. "Our house looks pretty naked right now."

So, León said, she has pretty much resigned herself to spending Christmas Eve with just her dog, Charlie Brown, who still pines for his best friend, that force of life everyone called Mery.

"He still sleeps by the door to my mom's room, and he often lays on the spot where my mom used to sit on the couch," León said. "They hung out a lot together while we were at work. He misses her, too."

Rodolfo Le?n holds a photo of his mother, Petronila Maria Le?n, who died on April 10. She was 75.
Petronila Maria Leon died on April 10. She was 75.Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News

'This is very different'

National tragedies, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during World War II or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shocked the country and cast a pall when the holidays rolled around.

"But almost no one, after 9/11, told a relative of a victim, 'I don't know if that's true that he or she died in a terror attack,'" Kessler said. "Here, a national crisis has been taken over by politics, and the very existence of the pandemic has been questioned. People have died, and we're still debating whether to wear masks."

The Covid-19 victims often died alone, Kessler added. And they were often buried alone because of pandemic restrictions on funerals and traveling.

"This is very different," he said. "We don't see this virus. We didn't see this happen."

Grief, Keller said, "must be witnessed" to be acknowledged.

"Many people are in deep, deep pain," he said. "The sad thing is that until somebody close to them dies from Covid, most people just don't get it."

León agreed.

"That's one of the frustrating things about this, hearing people say that the statistics are being manipulated and that it's not as bad as it's being reported," she said.

Various cultures have different ways of recognizing death and loss during what is supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year.

It is customary for Jews during Hanukkah to recite a remembrance for lost loved ones while lighting the menorah and to recount stories about those who are gone while sharing the meal.

People who take part in Kwanzaa are likely to remember coronavirus victims on Ujima, the third day of the weeklong celebration, the theme of which is taking responsibility and collective work.

Steven William Thrasher, an assistant journalism professor at Northwestern University who grew up celebrating Kwanzaa, said in an email, "I could imagine people talking about the need for mask wearing, taking care of each other, could be on that day."

Visiting the graves of loved ones on Christmas Day is an age-old Irish tradition. The Finns do that, as well, but on Christmas Eve.

Poles leave a seat at the Christmas Eve table empty, a custom that began as a reminder to be hospitable to unexpected guests and which, after a doomed 1863 insurrection, morphed into a memorial for loved ones lost to war or forced into exile.

In Portugal, extra places are set at the Christmas morning feast for "the souls of the dead."

Americans, too, will be challenged to come up with ways to celebrate the holidays while still mourning people who perished as a result of the pandemic, experts said.

"You can acknowledge a loved one's absence and still celebrate the holiday," said Sue Groner, the author of "Parenting With Sanity and Joy."

"Making a meal using a recipe that was theirs is a lovely thing to do," she said. "You can hang an ornament with a photo of the person on a tree. You can sing that person's favorite song. In this way, you're acknowledging them and making them a part of the holiday. Perhaps this ritual becomes a yearly tradition."

It's especially important, Groner said, that children understand that "these are normal emotions."

"Don't not celebrate the holidays — just do it in a way that feels right for your family," she said.