As we contemplate Christmas – especially in the early years of bereavement – we might wonder how we will survive. If this is the first year, it may feel painfully different from previous years. During this early grief, you may find the anticipation and stress of what you ‘should’ be doing very hard to deal with. You may yearn for the Christmases you had before your precious child or children died. Do you decorate the tree, send cards, give presents, attend a place of worship, join in the festive meal, go to a family party? If you have younger children or grandchildren, do you continue with important traditions of trips to the shops, the decorations, and a visit to see Santa? If you are a lone parent, you may now find ourselves literally alone in our home.
Many bereaved parents find that the run up to Christmas, with all the accompanying anticipation, can be more difficult to cope with than the actual day itself. The New Year celebrations looming in the background may be equally unwelcome and even dreaded.
At Bears of Hope we hope that some of the ideas below might help and support you as you prepare for the holiday season…the best gift you can give yourself is emotional safety….
- Do what feels right to you. Don’t allow other people to dictate how you should get through this time of year. Don’t feel you have to go to the office party or festivities with friends/extended family if you can’t cope with them. Don’t feel like you have to stay at home if you want to go out.
- Sometimes you don’t know what you will feel like doing until the last minute. Don’t feel you have to give others advance notice. Tell people you will decide on the day, and you will come if you feel up to it but may well not be able to. You might want to say that you will come for a short time only and will leave when you feel you need to.
- You might like to develop a Christmas ritual involving your child– attend a candle-lighting service with other bereaved parents; spend time at a special memorial place on your own or with others; make or buy a special card or decoration for your child.
- You may want to tell people that you need to have your child acknowledged by others at Christmas – to see their name in a Christmas card or that family and friends remembering your child with a toast during a festive meal. Many family members and friends would not know that you might want your child’s name to be spoken or memories shared about them unless you tell them. They often worry about getting it wrong or making you feel sadder. You need to let others know what you want if you feel able to do so (or ask your partner to be your voice).
- With family members or others, you are close to, try to talk together about how you are feeling, or what you all might want to do. Thinking and talking together can help you to prepare yourselves for Christmas, and sometimes when these plans do go right, the day can bring surprising comfort.
- If you have young children, be aware that they might wish for Christmas to carry on as before. Although this can be enormously painful, for surviving children the normality of Christmas celebrations can be important. Watching them enjoy themselves may be comforting, although still painful.
- Don’t put too much stress on yourself. If there are difficult relations who expect to visit or for you to visit them, just say you can’t do it this year if it’s going to make you feel worse. Alternatively, introduce a time limit – “We’ll come over for a quick visit but will only stay an hour.” ‘’Come to us for an hour or so in the morning or the afternoon or we will come to you for an hour or so in the morning or afternoon as this will be best for us’’. Take time out whenever you can, whether this is to go for a walk alone or with an empathic friend or family member. Take yourself off to another room for periods of time to rest from the effort of making an effort and to enable you to gather the strength to re-join the event when you feel able to.
- Spend time with people who understand but know not everyone will. Where possible, avoid those who don’t or spend as little time with them as necessary. Perhaps pre-arrange with a close family member or friend that they will ‘rescue’ you from someone who is too draining.
- Try to take some gentle exercise every day. This helps boost those much-needed endorphins.
- If you can’t cope with the idea of Christmas at all, consider going away or doing something else completely different. Be aware, though, that sometimes being away from supportive friends or family can be more difficult and the jollity of strangers may be painful.
- It is not being disloyal to your child to feel okay or smiling at times. You might find yourself enjoying a special meal, a drink, the good company of friends, songs and music, or even Christmas services. Adjusting to life without your child means that hopefully, in time, you will find more joy in living than you do at present.
- Be aware that the New Year celebrations can also be difficult. The coming of a new year can feel like you are moving ‘further away’ from your child. The celebrations of others, wishing you a ‘Happy New Year’, can intensify your yearning and grief. You can feel isolated from and resentful of the happiness of others. Acknowledge these feelings to yourself and others close to you. It might help to have a plan for the evening of December 31st – whether that is to be alone, or with close, understanding friends or family who will allow you to be yourself and remember your child at this poignant time of year. Even if you accept an invitation to attend an event at this time, you can cancel it right up to the last moment if you feel unable to follow through.
After the death of your child, the Christmas holidays may continue to be difficult for many years and perhaps even always. There will be a natural yearning for what might have been, an added poignancy to these occasions. However, we bereaved parents do survive these days, difficult as they are. What matters is that, as far as possible, you are able to do whatever feels right for you, and eventually be able to more easily carry the loving memory of your child with you into future Christmas-times.