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

Move On Already!

How long has it been?  A year, two, eighteen or twenty-five?

When. are. you. going. to. move on?  

Aren’t you over talking about their birth story, their childhood, their school years, their spouse, children, moves and career?  How many funny stories or sad recollections do I have to listen to?????

I mean, really-it’s been soooooooooo00 long since they were BORN!

Sound’s ridiculous, doesn’t it? It IS ridiculous.

We don’t expect parents to “move on” or “get over” their living children.

Why, why, why do we expect parents to move on or get over the ones they’ve had to bury?

My love for each of my children, on earth or in heaven, is life-long.  

I wrote about it here: Love: The Reason I Grieve

Twelve Things I Love to Remember

It rolls around every month-the twelfth-that glaring reminder that on this day “x” number of months ago, I woke to the news Dominic was never coming home again.

This month is 28.  Twenty-eight months-more than 28 moon cycles-over two years.

I don’t cry all day on this monthly reminder anymore-although I used to. And I have tried various ways to redeem it.

This month I decided to share twelve things I love to remember about Dominic. Maybe some things even his good friends didn’t know:

  • Dominic HATED to lose.  When he was a little boy we participated in a monthly skate session at a local roller rink.  At the end of the skating time (to encourage kids to quickly take off and return their skates) there were foot races broken up by age and gender. Poor Dom-he was built like a gymnast not a runner and he. just. couldn’t. win.  EVERY TIME, he’d come stomping off the floor, nearly in tears because he didn’t win.  So many things came easily to him but this didn’t and it frustrated him.
  • Dominic finished his undergraduate degree in three and a half years-double major-graduated Magna Cum Laude and delivered the undergraduate address for his graduation ceremony. I love that he was so goal-oriented and persevered even when it was really hard.

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  • He could subsist on rice and broiled chicken breasts when he was trying to work on muscle definition (he rarely missed a day at the gym) but when he was a little kid he hid candy along the side of his mattress.  He remained a sucker for a good sugar binge, especially when stressed during finals.
  • Dominic was scared of needles.  His PCP finally shamed him into getting a needed tetanus shot but he hated it!

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  • He had a weakness for puppies, kittens and kids.

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  • If it had strings, Dominic could play it-mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo.  And if you could coax rhythm out of it, he could make it sing.  Never silent, never still-always making some kind of music. Boy do I miss that!

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  • Dominic never took “no” for an answer.  He would doggedly pursue anything and anyone if he thought it was a valid case or course of action.  He had an entire university policy overturned because he was able to demonstrate to the administration that its application was faulty.  That’s part of what would have made him a great lawyer…
  • He was an adrenaline junkie.  He was the one that wanted to jump out of an airplane so he did.

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  • As an undergraduate he had a part-time job as a  lifeguard at the student recreation center.  He loved the job  but hated swimming. He was an amazing athlete.
  • Although he was an excellent orator, he didn’t really talk until he was almost three and had a speech impediment until he was into second grade.  You would never have known it if you met him as an older teen or adult.

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  • Oh!  Dominic was stubborn!  I remember one afternoon when I had given an assignment to draw a leaf in his nature journal.  He sat, without drawing, for over an hour because he insisted he couldn’t draw, wouldn’t draw and didn’t see the point in the assignment.  I finally caved and said he could trace the leaf.  I still have that picture as a testimony to his mulish side.
  • Dominic had a great sense of humor and nothing was out of bounds if it made someone laugh.

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I am so thankful God made me his mama.  I love every memory I have.  I really wish we could make more…

 

 

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

 

Slow Fade

It would be easier, in a way, if it happened all at once.

If the vivid memories of his voice, his laugh, his body language, his sense of humor just disappeared-POOF!-now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. Then I could make a single adjustment.

But that’s not how it is.  Instead, the living proof of his existence recedes like a wave from the shoreline, only there’s no returning surge to remind me of the force that was Dominic.

Each new day marks one more rotation of the earth, one more sunrise and sunset that places me further from the last time I saw him, the last time I heard his voice, the last time I hugged his neck.

And there is no cure for time marching on.  There is no “pause” button that I can push to let me catch my breath and allow my heart to comprehend the reality my body and mind must embrace.

Small mementos that are insignificant to those around me crumble to dust between my fingers.  Eventually I’m forced to sweep them up and put them away forever.

His friends find jobs, get married, have children-wonderful life events, things I celebrate with them-but they also remind me that he will never do those things.  I will never hold his child, relieved the labor is over, thrilled to see his eyes or nose in a tiny face looking back at me.

The subtle and constant change keeps me off-balance.  As soon as I think I have found my footing on this new plateau of loss, the earth moves beneath me and I’m stumbling once again.  

I came across this quote not long after Dominic left us.  When I first read it, I didn’t really understand.

But now I do.

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

 

 

Loving Well: Just Say His Name

I know you are afraid.

You think that speaking his name or sharing a memory or sending me a photo will add to my sorrow.

I understand.

But even when it costs me a split second of sharp pain, it is truly a gift to know that Dominic lives on in the hearts and minds of others.  It gives me courage to speak too.  It creates space where I can honor my son.

It helps keep him alive.

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” ~Banksy

I know you’re busy.  I know your life is full and bustling with so many people and activities demanding attention that you don’t have any to spare.

It is easy to forget.

He wasn’t your child. The date of his homegoing isn’t etched into the marrow of your bones, it isn’t scribed on the inside of your eyelids.

Every time the calendar screams “12” I make one more chalkmark on my heart counting the days since I saw him last.

But please remember.  Please don’t let the day slip by and not acknowledge that it is as important a milestone to me and my family as his birthday.

I know you’re scared.

Death is scary.  Even for us who trust Jesus.  And the death of a child just trashes the notion that we are in control, that we can fully protect the ones we love from all harm.

But you are frightened of what you cannot comprehend.

I am living the reality of your greatest fear.

Be brave.  Step out and welcome me in.

Give space for the longing to hear my son’s name, to know my son matters, to relive some of the happy moments and funny times and even some of the hard days.

I can sit by myself and remember him.

But sharing him with you breathes life into the recollection and speaks hope to my heart.

It fuels the fire that helps me see that even when I’m not here to carry him into the land of those still living, someone else will do it for me.

Love is stronger than death even though it can’t stop death from happening, but no matter how hard death tries it can’t separate people from love. It can’t take away our memories either. In the end, life is stronger than death.

—Anonymous

 

 

 

 

grief and sleep

Boy, do I envy my cats’ ability to fall asleep any place, any time.

I’ve lived with chronic physical pain for over a decade and there are nights when it is hard to go to sleep-when it is impossible to ignore the pain.  But I have never thought of myself as having trouble sleeping.

Until now.

When grieving a child, you are oh, so very tired.  Yet often sleep eludes you.

“He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Aeschylus

Lying in bed, in the dark, my mind kicks in to hyper-drive.  With no external stimulation to provide distraction, images come unbidden and unwelcome to taunt me.  I work hard to guide the train of thought to a less tortuous route.

So I thought I would share some ways that help me make it through the long nights:

  • Only lie down when you are tired enough to expect that you can fall asleep.  I am physically active each day so that at least my body is ready for rest.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages after 12 noon and don’t eat heavy foods past mid-afternoon.
  • Be selective about what you listen to, watch or read in the hours leading up to bedtime.  I try to feed my mind images and information that will help me focus on more positive themes when I close my eyes.
  • Keep a pad and pencil next to the bed to jot down last minute reminders of things you might need to remember tomorrow.  I try to think ahead and have a rough plan of action for the next day so that my mind can rest.
  • Make sure you are physically comfortable–room temperature and bed clothes appropriate to the season, pajamas in soft fabrics, well-hydrated, take analgesics as needed for physical pain, etc.
  • Make whatever concessions are needed to hold anxiety at bay.  I have a nightlight in my bathroom that casts a soft glow into my bedroom.  I keep my cell phone and home phone next to me because once you get “that call” you feel like you must be instantly accessible to loved ones.  My cat sleeps with me–purring is a great comforter.
  • When I turn out the light and turn over, I purposely focus my mind’s attention and heart’s affection on trusting God to help me drift off to sleep.

“I can lie down and go to sleep, and I will wake up again, because the Lord ·gives me strength [sustains/upholds me].”

Psalm 3:5 EXB

  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, try reciting Scripture or humming hymns and try to lull yourself back to sleep. I will sometimes do mental work like planning a project or trying to recall a childhood memory–anything that might make me tired.
  • If  you can’t go back to sleep in 30 minutes or so, get up and get on with the new day–even if it is only hours old.  There’s no use lying in bed and tossing and turning. While I may be exhausted for that day, I’m almost certain to be able to sleep better the next night.

Sleep is important.

If you find that you are unable to get more than a few hours sleep for longer than two weeks–talk to your doctor.  There is NO SHAME in asking for help. And there are many products available that are non-habit forming and suitable for short-term use.

It is impossible to do the work grief requires if you are worn out from lack of sleep in addition to carrying the pain of losing your child.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry Ward Beecher

If we can help ourselves get the rest we need, we are better able to face the challenge of each new day.