Somewhat by my own doing, life has spun out of control lately. Over-committed, over-worked, over-stressed and under-rested topped off with an extraordinarily heavy emotional burden. I didn’t plan well. I didn’t say ‘no’ when I should have, I had no form of self-care and it was the perfect storm for a grief break-down. Grieving the holidays begins long before the holidays and this was not a good way to enter them.
October (Aiden’s birthday) through January are months we sort of wish away. They are so heavy and so hard. I feel like I pull myself back up from his birthday and Thanksgiving is RIGHT there, then Christmas, then “Happy New Year!”
It’s another year my son’s feet won’t touch this earth. Another year of this…
and it’s daunting.
None of us trying to survive the loss of a child have been given a choice but to face continuing life without them. We didn’t choose this life, but are forced to figure out how to live it and the holidays just muddle and magnify the pain of a grieving heart. The first chord of a favorite Christmas song, smells of baking cookies, even commercials evoke memories of when our children were here
and things were right and ‘normal’ and well.
The emotion, tradition and insatiable yearning for our child’s presence is enough to bring you to your knees.
My favorite Christmas song used to be “All Is Well Tonight”. The soft melody, CeCe Winan’s beautiful voice and those words…
The fire is burning
The lights are low
It seems so perfect to watch the falling snow
My children singing their favourite song
And we’re all here where we belong
All is well tonight
We celebrate His life
A child is born…Christ the King
The perfect gift of love is the greatest gift that Christmas brings
At Christmas especially, I remember the peace of having such profound gratefulness and the contentment of all being well. That song said it all so perfectly.
But all is not well with us anymore. All can never be fully well again for parents who have lost a child. Being told “someday” we will be with our child, to “be happy” we have his memories is no consolation. None. What child would YOU like taken in exchange for wonderful memories? The pain and longings of child loss do not cease like they do with other deaths. Platitudes like those do not help. They only serve to make us feel even more misunderstood and isolated from those around us. The only thing that could take this pain is if our child were back in our arms this holiday where they belong.
I have accepted that a profound sense of peace and contentment is something I know I will not experience again here on earth. What I pray for now is strength, energy and the thoughtfulness it takes to get through this time and to hopefully enjoy some fragments of Christmas along the way. These are practices that my help.
HAVE A PLAN
I am blessed with a circle of friends who surround me every October. They anticipate the challenges and plan with me to do things to ease the pain and to honor Aiden for his birthday. Besides just praying, they call, they text, they physically show up. Most importantly they don’t carry the ridiculous expectation that somehow it all gets better. They understand that just like the abiding love for a child, the pain of their loss goes on and intensifies with each birthday and holiday.
Plan some time to re-charge before the onslaught begins. A well-timed weekend away between October and the holidays is a plan some of us have committed to each year. It’s a plan I desperately need and count on to recover from October and prepare for the holidays ahead. If at all possible, plan some time away from the grind with your spouse or friends before the holidays arrive. Recharge and prepare yourself for what is coming. Use the time with these loved ones to discuss how you are feeling about the upcoming holidays, and lay out a game plan for getting through them. When emotion and anxiety is high like at the holidays, it’s harder to think things through and anticipate your needs. Sometimes just talking it through helps.
Think about where and with whom you are going to be most comfortable with and plan the big days accordingly. Do you find more comfort being in a different environment than when your family was intact? Are you more at peace at home? Whose home can you spend several hours/days in? What family or friends are going to respect you and your family’s sensitive hearts this season? Those are the places and the people you need to be with.
Planning for these times of year takes so much out of you and even the best laid plans may fail, but having one eliminates some of the unknowns and therefore perhaps some of the foreboding surrounding it.
BE CHOOSY ABOUT WHO YOU SPEND TIME WITH
It’s hard to be around people at all sometimes and during the holidays you need to be around the right people. When your nerves are raw and grief is rumbling under the surface, it’s best to avoid those that my add additional emotional upset. You probably have a pretty good idea already of who those people are, keep them at a distance.
One Mom shared that last Christmas her sister-in-law bought her Mother a sweatshirt for Christmas that had all the grandkids names embroidered on it. All the grandkids except hers, that is. I guess her sister-in-law felt that since her child was dead, he did not deserve a place on the sweatshirt as a grandchild. My heart breaks imagining what that must’ve done to her already shattered heart. People like that have no place in your holidays.
There will be invitations for volunteering, cookie exchanges, church events, staff parties, neighborhood parties and more. I’m always so torn as to how to respond. The old me loved every second of those times, the new me has to deeply consider the potential cost. Most of us going through this don’t understand it, but social situations are just plain hard.
Try to find out what the event will be like. Who will be there and what will the evening entail? Will there be lots of noise and Christmas music? If so, are you able to be immersed in that? If there will be children and families there, are you going to be OK watching parents and their children enjoying Christmas together? Will you have some of ‘your people’ there, or will you be in a room full of mostly strangers?
Assess your tolerance for the occasion and say no if necessary. Be OK with leaving early as well. People who have taken the time to try and understand what you are going through will also understand your need to say no or go home. It’s that simple. Worry a little less about what others may think and a little more about your own well-being. I have let good manners keep me in rooms I never should’ve stayed in and the emotional fall-out is never worth it. The people who matter will understand.
Saying ‘no’ also opens up precious time for you to do things that will help you manage and bring meaning to this time for you and your family.
CARVE OUT QUIET TIME
My coping strategy is two-fold. I stay so mentally and physically engaged that I don’t have time to think, then I completely disconnect, seeking a solitary cocoon of writing, painting, or household tasks. I find that the disconnect is where my sanity lies. I’m learning the hard way it is that which needs to be coveted and practiced. It’s in the quiet spaces and meaningful activities where peace may find it’s way into your spirit, if only for a while. It’s those spaces where your mind can wander, contemplate and churn through the chaos that so often overtakes it.
It’s frightening to allow yourself that space knowing what may surface. It takes courage to let your heart take the lead, allowing the myriad of emotions that fester inside to take physical form and flow from your body. The dark waters of grief can empty, if only briefly, to make room for something else- something good.
Leave room for something, maybe even for the wonder of Christmas you used to feel. Make room for the possibility that something you thought you couldn’t do or feel- you can.
After Halloween I really avoid shopping, finding it infuriating that I have to defend myself from Retail Christmas starting Nov. 1. Yesterday, though, a friend asked me to go shopping. Instead of saying no, I made room for the possibility that her company, some time out of the house and maybe some Christmas shopping for the boys would be Ok- good even? As it turned out, it was more than Ok, it was even better than good! I found myself drawn to beautiful ornaments, decor and Christmas art- just like I used to. The decorations even inspired some Christmas creativity I’ve missed so much.
I thought about about making the house really special with some fresh decorations for when the boys come home and I felt an excitement bubble up. A way to channel Christmas into something for them.
There were things my eyes settled on and my ears heard that made my chest ache, but I also felt something else, something good. I made room for the possibility of something else and it found me.
The most valuable decision I’ve made while grieving the holidays was to put Jesus first at Christmas. To put him ahead of my pain and disappointments, my loss and longing.
The boxes of Christmas decorations were sitting in the middle of the floor- I knew Aiden and I had packed them up the year before, that his hands were the last ones to touch many of them. I could barely stand the thought of Christmas without him. I was ( and still am) in complete and utter disbelief that when we packed those boxes up it would be my last Christmas with him. The last Christmas with Aiden was sitting in those boxes.
I would become physically ill just approaching the boxes and so they sat there. A haunting reminder that I had a choice to make. Christmas was coming regardless of how I chose to spend it, so what was I going to do?
Eventually, what allowed me to take that step was choosing Jesus and saying, “For you Lord, I’ll do this.” Reaching into those boxes, my eyes filling with tears, my heart consumed with anguish, I could hear myself asking, “It’s your birthday, Lord, please help me do this.”
That thing I did not have in me to do, I did through Him. Allowing the possibility of something else, I got something wonderful…
Reaching beyond the horror of this loss, I felt a bit of Christmas.
It was not the indescribable peace and contentment of Christmas’ past.
It wasn’t with the overflowing gratitude of Christmas’ past.
It was something else. Christmas, but it was tainted and bruised, but that is how Christmas’ are now.
For the rest of that month until it was all packed away once more, it was such a comfort for my soul to have the soft glow and cheer of that tree warming the darkness.
I wept before it, I prayed before it, sometimes I just sat and stared into it waiting for answers.
There are no answers, though. Not here.
The questions and screams for answers will blow in again soon, but not now.
In Grieving The Holidays, our Christmas tree is both sorrow and hope, pain and comfort, longing and gratitude.
For a grieving parent at Christmas it embodies the contradictions of living life without your child.
It represents believing against every grain, until we hold our child again.
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