For those of us who have lost a child, the holiday season can be an overwhelming time of anxiety and sadness. The familiar rituals of family togetherness and being home for the holidays may leave us feeling alone and isolated. While the world around is celebrating, managing the pain and navigating this incredibly difficult time is often challenging for those who are grieving. The nostalgia of the season can renew the pain of loss even years after a child’s death.
In the six years since our son, Josiah, died I have found that many things can trigger the sense of loss, each bringing fresh waves of grief.
When a child passes away, nature’s intentions and the natural order of life and death are reversed. Grief can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. You may lose trust in your ability to make decisions or to trust others. Losing a child often takes us to the core of our being: we question life, fairness and our religious beliefs. When your world is falling apart it is hard to feel that you have any control. Even ordinary tasks at home and at work can be difficult.
Try to acknowledge that the upcoming holiday season may be a very difficult time for you. The first holiday without your child can be an especially painful one. Consider scaling back. Together, as a family, create new holiday traditions. If you have other children, ask them what they would like to do. Then, as a family, decide the best way to spend the holidays.
While planning your holiday time in advance will not change your loss, it may give you a sense of control over the occasion. Seasonal gatherings can be painful for those who are grieving. As difficult as this may be, try not to set your expectations of yourself or others too high. Let it be your choice how spend time honouring your child’s memory. Many bereaved parents will tell you that looking ahead to the possible sources of discomfort helped them better navigate this difficult time. Often families will change their familiar rituals and opt to do something different for the holidays, especially the first year after their child’s death. As a family, you may seek solace in a more private holiday experience where you can hold your memories close.
When it comes to grief, children often become the forgotten mourners. Talk to your children about their feelings as the holidays can still be a special time for them. Children need to express their emotions as they adapt to life without their precious brother or sister. Allow them to celebrate the holidays too. It’s normal for children to grieve in small doses. One minute they may be overwhelmed by their sadness, and the next rejoicing.
Look for ways to include the memory of your loved one in your holiday celebration. Encourage your children to make or do something meaningful. This could be making a holiday card or a special gift, lighting a special candle, creating an ornament, volunteering with a children’s charity or donating toys to those in need – all these can be beautiful ways to honour your child’s memory. Giving something of yourself to others can be healing during the holidays.
Every December, our family attends a “Blue Christmas” evening carol sing at the cemetery where Josiah is laid to rest. We also attend holiday services of remembrance at our local hospital and in our community. We savour time spent time with other bereaved families and the connection with the professionals who cared for Josiah. This year, our daughters will hang their traditional angel ornament on our hospice tree and together we will make a wreath to place at the cemetery. Each winter my husband places a ‘candy cane’ solar light where Josiah is buried, while our children place tiny ornaments on the cemetery Christmas tree with a message to their brother in heaven.
Look for creative and meaningful ways that you can honour your child throughout the year. Many families visit their child’s final resting place on special occasions such as the anniversary of the child’s birth and death and special holidays. Parents find a sense of peace knowing that their child is always with them in spirit. Give yourself permission to feel your heartache. Your memories of your child will help you cope.
Throughout the holiday season I encourage you to seek solace in others who share your pain. Find comfort in someone who can listen. Many hospices offer special workshops to help parents and siblings get through the holidays.
You may find that your support network changes. Some of those closest to you may not understand the depth and pain of your loss. You will find strength in those who share your loss – with bereaved parents, siblings and families.
Choose those people to be close who can hold your grief, let you cry your tears and share your pain. You may find yourself needing to distance yourself from those who are insensitive to your grief. Our society does not handle loss well, and those who have never experienced such tragedy may not understand it.
Have faith. Grief is a process of letting go of what was and accepting what is. Grieving is excruciatingly painful but it is also your salvation. Grieving is how you can come to terms with your child’s death.
I have learned that you don’t recover after the loss of a child. You adapt. You come to a place in your life where you can carry your loss forward and incorporate the loss within you.
Grief takes us on an unpredictable path. I have learned that there is no detour. There is only one road, and that is through … And I have found this to be so true. In the years to come, we will look back and discover what grief teaches us about life. Our understanding of life will deepen.