Repost: Christmas Cards-Yes? No? Maybe?

I’m posting this again because last year it seemed to help some bereaved parents figure out something that plagues all of us:  what to do about Christmas cards after a child runs ahead to heaven.

This year I did things a little differently.  I actually sent out Thanksgiving cards (a week late since my mom was in the hospital) and included a similar note with those.

Whatever you decide to do, do it because it helps YOUR heart, not because you feel compelled to meet others’ expectations.  ❤

Getting Christmas cards out on time was always a challenge in my busy household.  

So for the last years of kids at home, we transitioned to sending New Year’s greetings.  It was easier to get a family photo with everyone home for Christmas, there was no artificial deadline to send them and we could include a “thank you” or respond to news in their Christmas letters.

I haven’t sent anything for three years.  

What could I say?  

And a family photo was out of the question.

Read the rest here:  Christmas Cards-Yes? No? Maybe?

Be Free to Celebrate [or Not!]

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.  

Be free!

authenticity brene

 

 

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

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…