Making it Through the Holidays While Grieving the Death of Your Child
By Karla Helbert, MS, LPC
The pain of grief after the death of a child is without a doubt, for those of us who walk this journey know, the most difficult terrain to navigate during any time of the year. The holiday season creates even more obstacles for the bereaved parent. Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy. Feelings of gratitude, happiness and togetherness abound. These feelings seem nearly impossible to muster when the isolation and sadness of grief of losing your child is pressing in on all sides. It can be even more difficult to cope when everyone else around you seems so happy, and perhaps expecting or wishing you would be too. Key to making it through the holiday season is acknowledgement that you have changed, your life has changed, your family has changed, and your holiday season will be changed as well.
Bereavement is the state of being deprived of, or having lost, something precious to us. Grief is an internal reaction, or feeling, in response to that loss. Mourning is the outward expression of the feeling of grief. To mourn is to openly acknowledge and work through our feelings of grief. Actively mourning during the holiday season can be a way of helping us to cope with our grief and bereavement.
Particularly for the newly bereaved parent, openly acknowledging your grief and pain during the coming holiday season can help you make it through, and perhaps even help you find some comfort and joy. Some ways of doing this include finding ways to honor the memory of your beloved child while being honest with yourself, your family, and friends about what you need during the holiday season. Spend some time thinking about your family’s traditions and practices during the holiday season and imagine what those will be like this year without your child. This exercise will be painful, but it will help you to decide what you may need to make it through, and what things may need to change, for the fast approaching holiday season.
Make a plan. Know, without a doubt, that the holidays will be difficult and painful. Rather than attempt to do what you have always done, make a plan to do some things differently. Make a plan that will include your child; his or her name, memories, stories, hopes and dreams, in conversations and activities. Acknowledge your child's continuing presence in your life, and your love for him or her, as well as the pain you feel due to his or her absence. Create new traditions, such as lighting a candle or saying a prayer, for your child at a particular time of day or on a particular day of the week. You can do this on your own, at family gatherings, or both. You might wish to donate to a charity in your child’s name, plan a visit to the cemetery, watch a favorite holiday movie, listen to favorite songs, engage in activities that honor his or her life and memory.
You may wish to develop more than one plan. Plan A might include joining in family celebrations, plan B might include acknowledgment that, if plan A is too difficult, you will give yourself permission to stay home, or to leave early. Let it be ok to change your traditions and activities. In some cases, you may decide to cancel the holiday altogether. Let this be ok too, if that is what you need. Everyone is different and we all grieve and mourn differently. Some bereaved people find comfort in the routine and traditions of the holidays, while others simply feel they cannot face the holidays this year with so much pain and sorrow in their hearts. Whatever your personal needs, have a plan for how you will manage the holiday and plan for a specific activity that you will do on the actual holiday, as well as at important family gatherings. If you decide not to go with the plan you have made once the holiday arrives, this is ok too, but do have a plan. Bereaved and grieving people who do not plan for the holidays and other important days can have a much more difficult time getting through those significant times than those who do have a plan—even if they decide not to follow the plan.
It is far better to prepare for the holidays than to pretend they don't exist. Even if your plan includes pretending they don't exist, having a plan will help you through. It is true that the day is only a number on a calendar, but our culture is filled with symbols, advertising, Hallmark specials, decorations, merry makers and all number of reminders which are tied to our emotions and memories. Our inner experience is nearly impossible to escape. Putting on blinders rarely is the answer. Do you have plans for honoring, remembering and memorializing your child this holiday season? Do you have a plan for maintaining your own well-being during these next few months? Do you have support and an outlet for sharing your thoughts and feelings? Do you have people who will listen to you without judgment or advice about what you "should" or "should not" do? These questions all bear thinking about and the answers will help you make it through this difficult season.
Along with giving yourself permission to do things differently, give yourself permission to have some pleasure as well. It’s ok to laugh or smile, even through your sadness. Those things do not weaken your connection to your child, neither do they mean that you do not care or that you are not grieving.
Our children will forever be a part of our lives, whether they are physically present or not. Learning how to navigate not only the difficult terrain of the holiday season, but the landscape of the rest of our lives, is sadly, part of the life of a bereaved parent. Having a plan will help. I wish you peace for this upcoming season and hope for some comfort, through this difficult time.
Karla Helbert, MS, LPC
Some helpful online resources:
The MISS Foundation
Bereaved Parents USA