One of the most challenging things that faced me immediately after Dominic’s funeral was that we had two college graduations, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, his birthday, a wedding and my own thirtieth wedding anniversary within two months.
Thankfully we had some amazing friends and family that stepped up and filled in the gaps.
How do you celebrate when your heart is broken?
How do you make merry when you can barely make it out of bed?
How do you NOT cheat your living children when you’ve buried their sibling?
In the three years since Dominic ran ahead to heaven we have marked the occasions above as well as Christmases, Thanksgivings, my father’s 80th birthday, my husband’s 65th birthday, my daughter’s graduation with a master’s degree and receiving Dominic’s posthumous diploma from the University of Alabama School of Law.
In between these mountain tops were multiple hills of accomplishment that required more or less recognition and affirmation.
So the question comes up: “How should I celebrate [fill in the blank] now that my child is gone?”
The short answer is: However best suits your broken heart, the wishes of your immediate grieving circle and your circumstances.
And you owe no one else an explanation of why you make that choice.
Now, I’ll warn you that not all the choices you make will be received well by others who might be impacted by your decision. Extended family, no matter how much they may want to understand, often won’t.
I get that-traditions are hard to turn loose. Family habits are hard to change. If everyone is used to getting together to open Christmas presents it can seem selfish when one person says they just can’t do it.
But no one but a grieving parent can truly understand that the most random things can trigger uncontrollable anxiety and overwhelming sorrow. And no one but a grieving parent can know how much energy it takes to JUST SHOW UP.
Every single time my son SHOULD be here with us but ISN’T, is another stark and undeniable reminder that he is gone, gone, gone.
So this is how I make the decision about how to celebrate [or not!] any particular holiday or occasion: I ask my husband and children first what will best meet their needs, feed their souls, help them face the day with minimal stress and/or sorrow.
Then I stack that against the expectations of others that may be involved. Where they overlap, we join in. Where they don’t, we politely decline. And if there is a way to bend standing traditions to accomodate our grief, I will often propose a compromise.
I try to be thoughtful and plan ahead. I try to let anyone else involved know as far in advance that we will either be participating (or not) so they can make their own plans. But I reserve the right to back out last minute if I wake up and find out I simply can. not. face. the. day.
So far I’ve realized that having a plan takes a great deal of stress out of the system. Being honest with extended family and friends is so much better than trying to fake it and finding out halfway through the meal I just can’t. Choosing to stay home is kinder than making a scene and ruining the gathering for everyone.
Sometimes my suggestions have been met with resistance.
That’s just going to be part of this life.
I’m learning to stand up and speak my truth even when others don’t understand or like it. I work at being kind but I won’t be bowled over by someone else’s lack of compassion.
So much of life this side of loss is outside our control. We do not have to live up to other’s expectations of how or when or where we celebrate [or don’t!] birthdays, holidays or other special occasions.
None of us chose to be bereaved parents.
No one but us has to carry this heavy burden.
If we are going to do it well, we will have to make choices about the battles we fight and the additional burdens we allow others to place upon us.
It’s OK to say, “No.” It’s OK to do things differently. It’s OK to not do them at all.