The Holcombe family planned to celebrate Christmas at Bryan and Karla Holcombe’s house, where they would exchange gag gifts with other members of this large Texas family.
Instead, Joe and Claryce Holcombe will host Christmas at their home after eight members of their extended family — including Bryan and Karla — were killed in the Nov. 5 mass shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church.
“It’ll be different of course,” Bryan’s 86-year-old father, Joe Holcombe, tells PEOPLE.
“There will be a big hole in our family,” he continues. “It will be like always except there will be a void where there used to be eight people.”
Along with Bryan, 60, and the Holcombe’s daughter-in-law Karla, 58, Holcombe’s grandson Marc, 36 — known as Danny — was killed, as was granddaughter-in-law Crystal, 36, and the child she was expecting next year, as well as four of Holcombe’s great-grandchildren: Noah Holcombe, 17 months, Greg Hill, 13, Emily Hill, 11, and Megan Hill, 9.
“We say we lost nine because our granddaughter-in-law was pregnant,” Holcombe, whose nickname is “Papa Joe,” says.
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Despite the tragedy, Holcombe says, “We’re going to celebrate Christmas. It should never go away.”
He adds that as always, the family will “get together and eat and read scriptures and read the Christmas story.”
Holcombe has a deep belief in God and credits an unwavering Christian faith in dealing with the loss of three generations of his family.
“We know where they are, every one of them are where we are going to be going in just a few years, maybe sooner than that,” Holcombe says. “They aren’t gone, they’ve just moved.”
Holcombe says he hadn’t heard about the attack until he returned home from his church in Floresville, when his church pastor and some deacons came to the house “make sure we were alright,” Holcombe says. “It was quite a shock when we heard.”
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Holcombe and Claryce, married for over 60 years, have received scores of supportive letters from people across the world, gestures he calls “absolutely amazing.”
“It makes you feel real good,” he says, “It makes you feel like there still is a whole lot of love in the world. It’s what Christmas is all about.”
Holcombe’s grandson, John Holcombe — a survivor of the massacre who lost his pregnant wife, Crystal, parents John and Karla and three of his five step-children — is “doing all he would normally do except he’s a little more lonesome,” says Holcombe. “When he comes around to talk to you, it’s in a different tone. But he’s strong.”
Holcombe and Claryce recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming that if the Air Force had entered shooter Devin Patrick Kelley’s name into a national database, as is required by law, he would not have been able to obtain firearms.
Holcombe declined to comment on the lawsuit. An Air Force spokeswoman has told PEOPLE the branch does not comment on pending litigation.
As Christmas approaches, Holcombe and Claryce continue to receive supportive letters and cards.
“It’s wonderful that people are thoughtful,” says Holcombe. “Even in a tragedy they can show love, not hate. It’s just wonderful.”