Grief, Holidays and Hard Conversations

For those using these posts as a guide for navigating the holidays after loss, I would recommend you view them all before having those hard conversations.  I may not be giving the information in the best possible order.   The last posts will contain ideas from other grieving parents and grandparents that might be very helpful in deciding what’s best for you and your family.  You can share these posts to your own Facebook page or follow the blog via email to have access to them for easy future reference.

You don’t have to bury a child to know that changing long-standing family traditions around holidays is a hard, hard thing.

Just ask a parent trying to work out Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time after an adult child marries.  Suddenly the way things have “always been” are no longer the way things are.

Holidays typically involve so many more people and family members than everyday get-togethers and each person brings expectations, emotions and personal history to the table.

So, that is why I decided to run this series of posts NOW.  Because one of the things I have learned over the years is that giving people time to adjust to change is a good thing.

If you have made a Holiday Journal like I suggested, then use a page to list all the people that are typically part of your family’s holiday plans-you might want to make subheadings by holiday (and there may be other special get-togethers your family observes, so include those).

That list is a starting point for the people you may need to communicate with about the upcoming holidays.

Don’t feel like you have to include each individual in a unique communication-you can focus on those who are “in charge” of the gatherings/traditions and request that they pass it along.

Here are some specific tips for reaching out:

Understand that they DO NOT understand.

  • I know that unless someone has experienced child loss themselves, they really do not understand what it feels like.  (You might choose to share this post to help them understand-just a bit:What Grieving Parents Want Others to Know)  
  • No matter how much they may want to, they cannot really feel what I feel.  I have to constantly remind myself of that.

Don’t wait.

  • The closer we get to those dates on the calendar the more likely that others will assume you are just going to continue the traditions.
  • Most people dislike change.  And they hate it even more when it is a last minute change.  So don’t delay in at least giving those affected by your plans a “heads up” that things won’t be the same this year.
  • On a practical note people may need time to change plans if they involve making travel arrangements.

Decide how you will communicate your message.

  • Do you want to speak to them (on the phone or in person)?  This choice allows for subtle communication through tone and inflection but also requires immediate response.  Very few people can say, “I need to think about this” before blurting an answer.  Sometimes verbal exchanges can escalate quickly.
  • Do you want to write your message (text, message, email)?  This choice allows for a delayed response, gives a record of what was communicated but leaves room for misinterpretation because tone and inflection are hard to indicate by written word.  Let your heart and past experience with the person(s) be your guide.  It may be that it’s best one way for some and another way for others.

Acknowledge their loss.

  • Regardless of the relationship of other family members to your missing child, they have lost something  and someone too. They may not feel my pain precisely, but they feel the pain of losing a grandson, nephew, cousin and they feel the pain of losing who I was before burying my child.
  • They need space and permission to express their loss.

Use “I” statements.

  • Don’t accuse.  Don’t bring up every bad memory from Thanksgiving and Christmas past. Start from today and say, “I feel like I cannot do all (or some or any) of these things for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.”
  • Be as honest as you can be.  Feelings are not wrong.  What we do with them may be wrong or hurtful.  But it’s OK to say, “I just can’t do this right now” or “I don’t know how to do this without my child”.

Expect resistance.

  • People naturally hate change.  We develop relationship ruts and it takes a lot of energy to climb out of them.  They may very well find great comfort in keeping things as “normal” as possible after your loss.
  • What is helpful for you may feel threatening to them.
  • Stand your ground without being combative.  You can say something like, “I understand this is very hard on you, and I am sorry that this is painful, but it’s just how it needs to be for me and my family to continue to heal.”

If you can, offer an alternative.

  • In subsequent posts I’ll share some ways other bereaved parents have approached the holiday season.  Maybe one of those ideas will appeal to you and you can offer it as an alternative to the way things were before loss.
  • You might suggest that extended family continue traditions they cherish and you join in for the part you feel you can endure.

Extend grace.

  • Assume the best.  Assume that your extended family and friends are trying to understand and do not want to add to your burden or cause you pain.  Re-read messages with an ear to what hearts are saying even when the words may fail to communicate that message.
  • Ask for clarification before you react. There is so much room for misunderstanding around holiday plans anyway and when you add loss to the mix, it can be a recipe for relational disaster.
  • Allow time before responding to something that hurts your feelings.  It may very well have been unintentional.

I know that all these suggestions require additional emotional energy when we feel we are already tapped out.  We are already carrying a load that can crush a spirit-it seems unfair that we have to initiate the conversation, offer alternatives and give grace.

But they do not understand.

And they may not know where to start.

We have to remain focused on the goal:  Surviving the holidays.

If your family includes young children, how you approach this season is even more important.  You are building memories for them, shaping their childhood experiences and helping them learn to cope with what will be a life-long challenge-living with grief.

Consider printing this post and slipping it in your journal if you are making one.  That way you  can refer back to it easily.

Tomorrow: What the bereaved need from family and friends…

 

 

 

Grief and Holiday Plans: Working Out the Details

I live in Alabama where we are still sweating buckets under the late summer sun, so I understand if thinking about the holidays is the furthest thing from your mind.

School just starting, new routines in place-am I crazy?

Well, yes (you can find plenty of folks to back you up on that) and no-the days keep coming, one after the other, and these big days will be here sooner than we think.

And for grieving parents, it takes some thinking, some planning and some preparation to meet both extended family’s expectations and extra responsibilities at Thanksgiving and Christmas while carrying a load of sorrow and pain.

One thing I am learning in this journey is that even though I wish someone else would blaze the trail for me, I’m going to have to do it myself.  And because every major milestone is overflowing with emotional booby-traps, I have to plan ahead.

I wrote this post Practical Ways to Love Grieving Parents at Christmas last year and it has some thoughts that many found helpful.

But I didn’t have it out there until right around Thanksgiving which might be too late for some folks to make adjustments in plans already made by others.

So even though it’s early, and even though I am and have always been one of those people that resents the “holiday creep” that blends everything after the Fourth of July into a hodge-podge of orange, brown, green and red (UGH!)-I’m going to spend the next couple posts on practical ways to plan ahead and relieve some of the stress of this time of year on bereaved parents.

Here’s a few things to get you started:

  • Find a notebook or journal (I use a 70 page spiral bound notebook) and write in large print “Holiday Journal” on the front cover.
  • Find or print copies of calendars from October through December and staple, tape or glue them on the very last pages or the back cover of your journal.
  • On the first page, note any dates (in order) of birthdays, regular family gatherings and trips, etc. that are already committed for those three months.
  • On the second and third pages make a heading:  BRAINSTORMING.  Then list what you like/dislike/hope for/dread about the upcoming holiday season. (an example:  I dread having the family together in one place because it makes my son’s absence that much more apparent) Don’t edit yourself-write it all down-we will refer to this later.
  • On the fourth and fifth pages make a heading: FAMILY TRADITIONS.  Then list all the things your family usually does for the holidays (if this is your first season after loss they will all be pre-loss traditions, if not, they may include both pre-loss and post-loss traditions)
  • Place your journal where you can get to it easily but out of reach of small hands and family pets.

Then take a breath-you. are. not. alone.

We’ll work together to establish a survival plan for the holidays.

Tomorrow:  Dealing with extended family and how to have those hard conversations.

 

 

Father’s Day for Bereaved Fathers

I can’t pretend to understand exactly what it feels like to be a father who buries a child. I’ve only been able to watch from the outside as my husband absorbed the impact of that great wound.

But I can tell you this:  for dads, like moms, each holiday is another mile marker on the road of grief.

It is another poignant reminder that things are not as they were-they are not as they should be.  

father hurts too

Many men keep the hurt bottled up inside, don’t talk about it, don’t seek out fellow bereaved fathers, and don’t cry as much as their wives.

It is easy to forget and overlook the ongoing pain of child loss for fathers-especially when outward signs are few.  

But I promise you-that dad in the pew on Sunday-he’s hurting.

That man shaking hands and joking-he remembers.

He hasn’t forgotten that one of the special people that called him “Daddy” is no longer around to do it.

Tell him you remember too.

Speak his child’s name and share a special memory.

Acknowledge the pain.  Let him express his grief.  

And honor him as a father to ALL his children-those that walk the earth with him and those that don’t.  

good father unsung

 

 

Memorial Day

Dominic was born on Memorial Day, May 28, 1990.  I had spent the weekend working in the yard without a thought that my son would soon be appearing.  He wasn’t due for ten more days and so far, none of my children had been born “early”.

I wasn’t ready!

But he was determined to make his entrance on his own terms.  And that’s pretty much how he did everything.

And then he left us-“early”.

I wasn’t ready for that either.

We celebrate Memorial Day with cookouts and fun family gatherings.  But that isn’t what this day is for.  This day has been set aside to remember those who died serving our country.

In war after war, families across America have been devastated by the deaths of their sons and daughters, many  taken in the prime of life, at the dawn of adulthood.

Almost every family and community has a story of  burying a promising young soul that was sure to make a difference but who never got that chance.

My father served and my son is now serving.

And to all the mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave the last full measure for their home and country, I say:

“Thank you for your sacrifice.  Thank you for the love poured into the child that became the brave man or brave woman who would put his or her life on the line for what they believed in. Your toil bore much fruit that continues to bless others today.”  

You have given up what no one has the right to ask of you.

You live with both the honor of your child’s legacy and the horror of your child’s absence.  

memorial day soldiers

And if your child survived the battlefield but could not survive the scars of war, I am so very sorry.

I understand the pain of missing the child you love,  I hear your heart and I am praying for you.

As we gather with our families and enjoy freedom purchased with the blood of sons and daughters, may we REMEMBER.

memorial day how much did all this cost

May we honor the ones who gave everything they had to secure our liberty.

And may we remember the families left behind who can never forget.  

 

The strongest love anyone can have is this. He will die to save his friends.

John 15:13 WE

Do They Have Birthdays in Heaven?

Today would have been Dominic’s twenty-sixth birthday.

He should have been a little over a year out of law school and one year into a career.

Instead, he’s not here.  And he will never be HERE again.

I’m getting pretty good at shifting my focus from the giant hole that is where Dominic is supposed to be to the fullness of the life that still surrounds me.  Not today.

Today the absence of his presence is especially keen.

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I miss him.

I miss his smile.

 

I miss his harsh logic that would slice through a conversation like a knife. I miss his noisy descent down the stairs-always snapping his fingers to a rhythm in his head.

I miss his sense of humor.

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I miss his fearlessness.

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I miss his hugs.

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I miss how even though he claimed to “hate” kids, he melted every time one crawled into his lap.

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I miss how he used to launch himself, back first, on my bed to announce he was there to talk for a bit.

I miss how he found special tools to help me in the kitchen when my arthritis kept me from being able to do something I loved.

I miss how he could combine tough talk and smooth BS into cajoling a complaint department to not only fix the problem but throw in a gift card as well “to keep his business”.

I miss being able to call him with my stupid tech questions and have him walk me slowly through the solution (even though I know it frustrated him).

I miss his texts, his calls, his FB messages. I miss his tweets.

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I know I’ll see him again someday and that we will never have to say good-bye again.

But until then,  I really, really miss him.  

and so it was that she having waited long

 

Mother’s Day as a Bereaved Mother

In recent years I’ve noticed more awareness of how hard it can be for women who struggle with infertility to walk into church on Mother’s Day and I am glad.

Pews filled with other women’s children and bulletin announcements, public recognition of “oldest mother”, “youngest mother”, “mother with the most children” along with the obligatory sermon based on Proverbs 31 conspire in a litany of accusation against the barren womb.

Some of these women choose to stay home.  Others may be silently lifting a prayer for grace or may, like Hannah, be begging God for a child.

As a bereaved mother, this is a complicated holiday for me too.

I am so, so thankful for all my children.

I received each as a gift from God and treasure them in my heart.

Being a mother has been and continues to be the most demanding and most rewarding thing I have ever done or ever hope to do.

I used to look forward to Mother’s Day.

Not so much because it celebrated me as a mom, but because it was a moment to pause, reflect and remember how wonderful it is to be surrounded by my children.

But there’s no train from here to Heaven, no telephone line that can bridge the gap between where I am and where Dominic is.

I will never again be able to gather my children around our earthly table, see each of their faces, hug their necks.

So bear with me.

  • Let me be happy for the children I can see and sad for the one I can’t.
  • I might join in with singing, or I might just close my eyes and remember Sundays past when we were sitting in the same pew, together and strong.
  • If you see me rush out of the sanctuary at the end of service, please don’t stop me.  Let me go-I may have held back sobs during the closing prayer and need to escape and let them loose.

And if you think of me and other mothers who have buried children, pray for me and for them.

Pray that we finish strong, that we persevere and that we continue to cling to the One Who can carry us through the rest of our days with hope and courage.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing [through the experience of your faith] that by the power of the Holy Spirit you will abound in hope and overflow with confidence in His promises.

Romans 15:13 AMP