Practical Ideas for Dealing with the Holidays after Child Loss

This is the fourth in a series on making plans for the holidays after loss.

Yes, it’s early and no, you might not want to think about them-it’s really hard to imagine Thanksgiving and Christmas without the child you love.  BUT, the days will come whether we want them to or not. Here’s some help to navigate them.

If you missed the first three posts you can find them here:

Grief and Holiday Plans: Working Out the Details

Grief, Holidays and Hard Conversations

Grief and Holidays:What the Bereaved Need From Friends and Family.

It cannot be overstated:  holidays are extremely hard after loss.  Every family gathering highlights the hole where my son SHOULD be, but ISN’T.

There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to handle the holidays after losing a child.

For many, there is only survival-especially the very first year.

These days also stir great internal conflict:  I want to enjoy and celebrate my living children and my family still here while missing my son that isn’t. Emotions run high and are, oh so difficult to manage.

So I’m including some ideas from other bereaved parents on how they’ve handled the holidays.  Many of these suggestions could be adapted for any “special” day of the year.

Not all will appeal to everyone nor will they be appropriate for every family.  But they are a place to start.

If you have decided to make a Holiday Journal,  consider printing these ideas to put inside or copying out the ones that might be helpful for you.

Skip it.  

  • Sounds drastic and it is.  But for some families (especially if there are no small children involved) it is absolutely possible (and sometimes healing) to ignore all traditions and trappings associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • You might choose to serve others on these days by volunteering with a local organization offering meals to the homeless or disadvantaged in your community.
  • Take a holiday meal to hospital workers, police officers or firemen in your area.  You can do it anonymously or in the name of your child.

Consider traveling for the holidays.

  • On the first Thanksgiving after my son left us, we shared the weekend with our newly married son and his wife in another state.  It was the first time in my life I hadn’t spent the holiday with my parents.  It was still very hard, but helpful in a way.
  • Other families have chosen to rent a cabin or condo and have the same people involved but experience the season in another location.  Most try to choose a place with a natural focus for activity that isn’t all about the holiday-like skiing in the mountains or near a lake or beach.

Change how you do meals.

  • If your family traditions always include the same foods in the same house, you might want to eat the holiday meal in a restaurant instead.
  • You could swap up the timing of a meal-evening instead of noon or vice-versa.
  • Change up the guest list-include a few close friends along with family members (friends that understand your grief).  Sometimes it helps to have others not so affected by the loss in the mix.
  • If you have been the host but don’t feel like you can do it this year-definitely consider passing that to someone else.  And don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Include the missing family members at the table in some way. One bereaved mom wrote:  “My niece includes my  son and mom at events hosted in her home.  She sets a chair aside and places a photo in the seat and a commemorative bow on the chair back.”
  • Don’t make certain foods. I make giant plates of cookies but have not made shortbread cookies since my son left us.  It was his favorite and one of the few things that tempted him from his strict weight-lifting diet
  • Make your child’s favorites and enjoy eating them and sharing memories around the table.

Let others do the planning/cooking/communicating.

  • Explain to your family that you aren’t up to being the one to plan this year’s holidays.  Let someone else do it.  Participate if and when you can.  
  • Be kind, but stand your ground.

Make new traditions. 

  • If you go around the table at Thanksgiving saying, “I’m thankful for…“-it might not be something you can do this year.  That’s OK.
  • Light a candle for the missing child.  You might want to have those present share a favorite memory or you might simply want to have the candle create a silent presence.
  • Some families can’t bring themselves to use the same Christmas tree they used before loss so they get a new and/or different one.  Some don’t want a tree at all.
  • Some families have a separate tree full of ornaments or memorabilia for their missing child and use the main tree as usual for the rest of the family.
  •  “I have a separate tree for Z. . It’s filled with ornaments that remind us of him. They range from glass ornaments with his favorite candy inside to a Thomas the tank engine ornament. Collecting more ornaments for him as I’m out shopping for others helps me during this very painful time.”
  • Some families don’t hang any stockings while others hang them all, including the missing child’s.
  • Another family asks family members and friends to write a note to their son or share a favorite memory of him.  They place them in his stocking to be opened and read on Christmas Day.
  • “We asked everyone to do a random act of kindness in memory of our daughter and our friends’ son and to email it to us. We printed out all of the emails, put them in her stocking and read them as a family on Christmas morning. It was amazing to hear all of the lives touched as a result, and it took our focus off of our loss.”
  • My husband, children (all adults) and myself didn’t want to receive gifts from extended family the first year.  We still gave them, but asked that others refrain or give a donation in our son’s name.
  • Some families buy gifts that would be appropriate for another child the same age as their missing child (or the age they would be) and give them to  another child for Christmas.

Commemorate your child:  

  • Some bereaved parents put a Christmas tree with solar powered or battery powered lights on their child’s resting place.
  • Some parents take family photos and include a large photo of their missing child or a special family memento (like a stuffed animal or symbol on a shirt) to represent that child in the pictures.
  • Some families give donations in their child’s name to organizations that purchase Christmas gifts for needy families or food for families at Thanksgiving.
  • In some communities there is a “Blue Christmas” ceremony on December 21st each year in which families gather to remember lost loved ones with music, candles and sometimes a devotional message. Some are sponsored by local chapters of The Compassionate Friends.  If there is not one in your area, your church may be willing to host one.

Keep the same traditions:

  • For some families, keeping everything the same is the most comforting choice. Especially if there are young children involved, it may be the easiest way to go.
  • But feel free to ask for help.  If you are not up to shopping for children in the family, make a list, let someone else do it and wrap the presents for you. Or use an online shopping service (many offer gift wrap).
  • Same goes for holiday outings-maybe a good family friend or an extended family member could take the children this year and document it with photos.

Whatever you choose to do or not do, know that there’s no wrong way or right way.  

Be gentle with yourself-this is a hard road.  And a long one. 

Photo credit: State Farm via Visual hunt

Author: Melanie

I am a shepherd, wife and mother of four amazing children, three that walk the earth with me and one who lives with Jesus. This is a record of my grief journey and a look into the life I didn't choose. If you are interested in joining a community of bereaved parents leaning on the promises of God in Christ, please like the public Facebook page, "Heartache and Hope: Life After Losing a Child" and join the conversation.

3 thoughts on “Practical Ideas for Dealing with the Holidays after Child Loss”

  1. My sweet friend, thank you for sowing into our broken hearts. Your practical ideas and gentle wisdom are so helpful and touching to our family and is, I am certain, a sweet aroma to the Father. I love you sister.

    Liked by 1 person

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