The holidays: Tips for creating a new normal
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
What is “remembering”?
Not all of us welcome traditions and expectations or even joyous homecomings while caught in the grip of grief for a child, and that’s natural. Oftentimes it is the fact that the world goes on… that we go on… without the child that is the most private insult we feel. Holidays, especially, are meant to be shared with family and friends. Each one — from Christmas to Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day and birthdays — shines a unique spotlight on absent family members.
If a brother is deployed overseas in the military, or a sister is in prison during the holidays, we still hold a mental chair for them at the table. It’s natural to talk about them, wonder about them, and try to reach out to them through cards and whatever other methods we have. So that begs the question of who could ever be more absent and unreachable than a dead child? And when it’s the third year or the fifth and other family members don’t want to bring up the child’s name again, to “move on” — what is a parent to do who still aches over that empty chair?
The holidays can also represent a guilt train on which we hold the first ticket sold. “How can I celebrate when my child is dead?”
If you can, stand back from what is happening to you and around you as the holidays encroach to ask yourself a few questions about how you want to carry your missing child into the holiday to give them “presence”, too.
Are you wanting to remember your child privately or publicly, involving other family members or friends?
Is “remembering” another word for “honoring” the dead child above the celebration? This is what happens when holidays are turned into subsequent memorials for the child. And if that is your intent, or the family’s intent as you struggle through the first, second or even tenth holiday of its kind, that’s fine — if everyone acknowledges that goal. What is not fine is to turn a blind corner and find yourself at the intersection where you want to host or attend a memorial (even a mental one, where the child is discussed and remembered) when others may be gathering for more traditional or straightforward reasons, like to have a family meal and light-hearted talk. You may be hurt and surprised that they may purposely steer away from your child out of consideration for you and others.
Can you “remember” your child (whether your actual child or niece, nephew, grandchild or friend) without jumping in the hole in the sidewalk to revisit the pain of the passing or absence? Are you ready for that?
Initially, holidays can make a grieving parent feel a bit schizophrenic. We are physically at one celebration, but oftentimes find ourselves mentally revisiting past celebrations or thinking of how this actual celebration could have been, if our child were present. Tears come unexpectedly, while making a favorite dish for the dinner or seeing another family member who would be about the same age as the child.
It feels wrong to not buy a gift for the child. Or have their picture in the album (or posted on flicr). It is HARD and no one else knows how to help us through it.
This is a very natural stress point for marriages, too. One partner may deal with holidays very differently than another, and not even want to discuss it. Or a partner may feel impotent to comfort the other, as they are negotiating difficult white water rapids, too.
Grandparents don’t know what to do or say to mitigate their own grief. It may feel as if you are the only one suffering or even aware that the child is gone, but that is not true. Everyone around you is walking on eggshells, too, even if you don’t know it — and they may take pains to make sure you do NOT know it.
Tip to other family/friends: Saying “I’m aware the holidays may be especially painful for you without [child’s name], and I want you to know that I remember and miss him/her, too,” is a GIFT you can give and mean. You won’t be bringing up thoughts that aren’t already front and center in the mind of the parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle (etc). This also gives them “permission” not to “spoil your holiday” if they need a few private minutes with you to remember their child and talk about the child or how they are feeling.
So, how do you get through or (better yet) actually celebrate a holiday without your child?
You have options for creating a holiday you can live with, or skipping the holiday altogether. Yes, you’re an adult and you actually can “skip” a holiday, but I would suggest that if you do, it is to be authentic to what you are feeling, and not a shield to hide from what you are feeling. Cancelling a holiday (versus celebrating it a different way) is the most radical option, and is best done after a lot of inclusive thinking about everyone involved, and especially any siblings of the child — because holidays are a part of life and your journey did not end. Your physical journey with your child ended.
Adapting to that distinction is difficult but necessary to move on with your own journey, and to make peace with the beauty and wonder of the relationship you felt, and likely still feel, with your child. It’s moving to the ultimate celebration of a life which Dr. Seuss so aptly put as “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” It’s getting from tears to smiles that is the hard journey, and it takes time.
Assuming you want to at least observe the holiday, here are a few suggestions.
Before you go to the gathering, share a favorite story about your loved one — holiday or not. Celebrate that it happened -- you can do that here anytime, any day. You write and send it as a comment and I'll read it. I may not respond, as that isn't important. What's important is that you had a place to remember and share.
Light a candle for your loved one. This doesn’t have to have religious overtones, if that makes you uncomfortable. Celebrate and remember the light they brought into your life.
Buy your loved one a present in the form of a bench in a park. A name on a tile. Plant a tree. There are some places you can buy a reasonably priced memorial bench. If you can’t afford it all at once, put a little money aside at significant holidays and birthdays until you can. This way, they didn’t fall off you “buying list” forever, if giving gifts is part of what you love about your holidays.
You might make a special memory (in private memory of your child, as a tribute). If your child died at an early age, consider doing something extra meaningful and fun for the siblings, if any. Too often, feelings for them are pushed aside by the feelings for the missing child, and they can feel that keenly. Read to hospitalized children. Reach out, in other words, but you can keep the reasoning private.
If you child was a young adult or adult when they died, is there a small scholarship you could offer to subsidize a child being able to attend of football game or a play or an event your child enjoyed? Hint: Check with The Salvation Army in your area; they can coordinate outings for children who otherwise couldn’t go.
Share a holiday prayer which includes your loved one at the family dinner table.
If you child is brought up by someone else at the table, and it takes you or others by surprise, be prepared in advance to ask everyone to tell a humorous story about your loved one if appropriate to the age of your child. This relieves pressure and steers discussion away from the death details.
Review what you want from the holiday and get rid of things you’ve always done that don’t contribute to that. Do you really have to peel potatoes? If you love cooking, yes. If you don’t, get rid of the burden and buy one of the real mashed potato products already at the grocery store. Get rid of “obligations” to give you more time and energy for the activities that really bring you joy, and this will go a long way toward bringing the real meaning of the holiday to the surface again.
Have a Plan B. Tell family that you’ve made two plans and if you need to leave, leave. Don’t back away from true feelings (versus hiding) and be respectful of your own true feelings as well as those of others.
Have something to add to this list? Chime in!