Nikki Stern didn't send out any Christmas cards this year. She wasn't ready to just sign her own name.

Stern, whose husband, James Potorti, died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, also won't be visiting her in-laws in North Carolina for the holidays this year. She opted instead to stay with cousins in California.

"If I went down by myself, they'd really notice if he wasn't there," said Stern, of Plainsboro, N.J.

Many Americans who did not lose loved ones in the terrorist attacks are turning to the holidays as a welcome distraction from unsettled times. But celebrating is the last thing on the minds of families who are just beginning to grieve.

In Glen Rock, N.J., Courtney Acquaviva has put up a Christmas tree, bought gifts for the whole family and decorated her house for the holidays, all while getting ready to give birth to her second child. Acquaviva, 30, lost her husband, Paul, 29, a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, on Sept. 11.

"It's for the kids," said Courtney's mother, Nancy Seitz. "She wants it to be the way Paul would have wanted it."

"This is like yesterday. They're still in shock," said Alan Wolfelt, a psychologist who has written more than 20 books on grief. He said victims' families will have trouble relating to the festive atmosphere around them because it is so early in their mourning process.

"Intellectually, they understand it, but emotionally it just doesn't seem right," said Wolfelt, who directs the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo.

Some families have decided to pretend the holidays aren't happening.

"I just can't think about it right now," said Rose Zangrilli through tears. Her 36-year-old son, Mark, was killed in the World Trade Center. The Zangrillis said they may spend the day with their grandchildren, but haven't put up a Christmas tree or had time to think about gifts.

For others, traditions are being modified. Ginny Bauer, 45, of Rumson, N.J., usually cooks a turkey dinner for 25 on Christmas Day. This year, three months after her husband of 21 years, David, was killed, she and her three children will go to a cousin's home.

"My kids understand that we are just going to be very quiet this year," she said. "We're basically just doing the bare minimum."

The Bauers wouldn't have had a Christmas tree if a friend didn't bring one over and decorate it. Bauer told her family that she couldn't shop for gifts. And she can't summon the feelings of goodwill and thankfulness that usually come to her home around this time.

"It's hard," she said. "You can't pretend to feel a certain way. I don't feel too thankful today."

Wolfelt said that mourners can sometimes be pressured by friends with good intentions who want them to get in the spirit, either by overplanning their holidays or trying in vain to cheer them up.

"Your goal right now is just to breathe in and breathe out," Wolfelt said. "The more you allow yourself to feel your sadness, despite the happiness that's projected around you, the better served you'll be."