I must survive Christmas without my child. Again. I’m really trying not to dread the holidays. Trying to embrace them though is like trying to embrace a snarling beast. You might find a safe spot to hug, but most likely it’s going to hurt like hell. Last year without our son was everything you would imagine the first Christmas without your child to be and then some. I have learned that everyday after losing a child you must make a decision to want to continue to live or wanting to die. And by “die”, I don’t necessarily mean leaving this earth. There are many ways to die and still be among the living. The braver and stronger among us choose to live and that is by far, the more difficult choice. Ask anyone who has chosen it. The holidays absolutely make the latter option more appealing and there are many days this time of year the idea of medicating myself into a blissful stupor sounds appealing. I just have chosen not to.
For parents of loss, what has likely been the most beautiful, joy-filled time of family, tradition and extraordinary love, is now cloaked in heartache, physical pain and missing their child worse than ever. I’m struggling right now with whether I can get his stocking down from the attic and look at it daily until Christmas. Is it worth seeing it hang there flat and empty of gifts on Christmas morning while everyone else’s is full? So I must choose what I can do. Always weighing and choosing what we can do…I doubt any of us could ever imagine putting away boxes of Christmas decor thinking it would be the last Christmas we would spend with our child. The last time they scratched out their wish list on a piece of scrap paper, the last time they glued together Christmas ornaments for the tree. The last time watching his careful hands place Jesus in the manger. No. No one could ever imagine that.
Children never die under normal or expected circumstances. It is never not tragic. So every bereaved parent enters this time of year with a bloodied wound in their heart, already coping with an impossible trauma. Now the very things that once brought the most joy are what inflict the most pain. Wanting and needing so desperately to experience that supernatural joy and excitement that comes with having children at Christmas but being unable to feel anything but emptiness and sorrow. Wanting so terribly to hum along with Christmas carols while you all decorate cookies, but you can’t even bear to hear the music, let alone make cookies so you wander your silent, scantily decorated house trying to shut out the memories. They are just too painful to face.
It’s time to send out Christmas cards. How you loved getting everyone dressed and posed for the picture, your heart bursting with joy and pride for your beautiful family that adorned the front of your card. But how can you take a family photo when the family is now tragically incomplete? It hurts so much, now the simple pleasure of creating the Christmas card may be one of the many things you may go without this holiday.
Think of never again seeing your child’s sweet sleepy face light up as he comes down the stairs Christmas morning. What some only have to imagine is reality for parents of child loss. There is no easy way to muddle through this time of year. It is, by nature, in-your-face, so regardless of how hard you try, it will be thrust upon you just like your new station in life has been. The world has become a very unfamiliar and hostile place and this is one of the reasons why. Everything feels different, because everything is different, including and especially Christmas.
What little I have to offer are only my observations and advice after having gone through this for the first time last year. I’d like to say this year has been easier, but other than some occasional softening, it mostly hasn’t. I heard that would be the case and did not want to believe it, but it’s true so I will be following much of this advice this year as well.
- Say NO a lot. You are in a world of pain at the same time the everyone else is on an emotional and materialistic high. The two do not mix well. Materialism is likely repulsive to you and so is the fact that from your dark and lonely place, you have to observe a world that is merry and bright when you’ve lost the only thing that actually matters. It’s OK to stay home when you feel you need to stay home. Don’t push it and don’t feel guilty about it.
- Do what you can and nothing more. It took me days and several attempts at opening the first box of Christmas ornaments before I actually did. Every time I approached the box, I got sick to my stomach. Looking back, I’m glad I had the sense to back away. Merely existing at this crazy time of year takes so much out of you, it’s OK to wait until your tank has a little reserve. It will need it. I got to my tree eventually, and it was a wonderful thing to do.
- Don’t feel you must open Christmas cards you know will have family photos of the intact families in your life- especially if they have kids your deceased child’s age. I’m here to tell you it sucks. The long “letters” of what the kids did all year-long and the family vacation photos-even worse. (Why anyone would send a 2 page account of their families super fabulous year to a family who just lost a child is beyond me, but they do.)Be grateful for the thought and set them aside for another time.
- Leave time for active grieving. To think we will not need our moments of ugly, messy grieving over the next several weeks is unreasonable. We will and it literally drains the life out of you. Leave some buffer time in your schedule for this. Packing your days with constant activity only allows the pressure cooker to build up. I need to take my advice on this one. I’m afraid to stop doing and moving and it is not healthy, it just looks healthy from the outside. There’s a difference.
- Don’t try to please anyone but God, your family and yourself. Even God and family may have to wait their turn and that is OK too! God certainly understands and likely, so does your family because they are grieving as well. No one, and I mean NO. ONE. needs to be taken care of but you and your family now. Do not feel pressured to entertain, take part, volunteer or even get out of bed if it’s more than you can handle on any given day. Remember- just getting through the onslaught of what is involuntarily thrust upon you as you drive down the street, turn on the radio or walk through the grocery store is way more than enough right now. It’s heart breaking. Don’t put more on yourself or allow others to. No one can possibly understand what you are trying to manage at this time. Just survive. That’s it.
- Pray and read His word. I have no right to preach this but I will because I’ve gone through periods where I was in The Word and periods where I had no desire whatsoever. I understand how different this walk is with and without Jesus. His word is power, strength and life to a grieving heart. “…he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” You are walking in the shadow of death. Let Him comfort and hold you. Hold fast to your promise of eternal life with Him and our saved loved ones. As the apostle Paul said ‘we are saved by hope.’ That is what gets me from one day to the next- waiting until I hold him again.
- Stay close to your immediate family and love each other with particular gentleness. Great sorrow is physically and emotionally exhausting. This is when families need to treat each other like the broken pieces of porcelain they are. This is when, in your most un-lovable state, you need to be physically and emotionally close and kind to one another. You are ALL raw and hurting, doing something nobody knows how to do and never should have to do – surviving an out-of-order death of a most beloved child. Love each other enough to stop and breathe, ask, talk, touch and be gentle. Keep people and situations that cause further angst and pain out of your life for a while.
- Speak the name of your child who is gone. I belong to an on-line community of hundreds of grieving mothers and by far one of the most excruciating symptom of child loss is not having their child’s name spoken or the child remembered by others. If others are too uncomfortable to say his/her name, you do it! Talk about a holiday memory. Make their favorite cookie. Just say their name. Hearing your child’s name crossing your lips will be a familiar comfort to your broken heart and will let others know it’s OK to talk about them.
- Lastly, remember CHRISTmas. Keeping Christ at the center of the season, helped me to do some things I may not have wanted or been able to do otherwise, such as trimming the tree and putting up a manger. I wanted to be strong enough not to give pain precedence over honoring Jesus- to try to worship him even in the midst of this agonizing pain. I wanted His strength to be made perfect in my weakness and it was! It was the best thing I did. Sitting before the tree in the dark of early morning or late at night brought me much comfort. Being able to do something other than hurt made me feel stronger and grateful. You can read more about my first Christmas here. Make room for Jesus in your Christmas this year, as difficult as that may seem. He will show up as He always does.
I won’t say “Merry Christmas!!” like so many others will do to you this year. I know how insensitive that phrase will seem for a while.
I will say- I understand your Christmas and stand with you in your sorrow. I will say- you will get through it like so many of us have had to. And lastly I will say, I’m so sorry you have to do this.
Please share this so another grieving heart may have company in their experience this Christmas.