Facing the holiday season after the loss of a child can feel challenging for so many reasons. As we prepare to head into the holidays, knowing you are not alone in your feelings can be so helpful. Here are a few ideas to help you navigate this time of year as you are grieving.
The thought of going to holiday gatherings may feel overwhelming.
Perhaps your family and friends have been a tremendous support during this time of loss, and the idea of surrounding yourself with people who love you in this way is something you’re looking forward to. But many may find that they just don’t feel ready to be in a group of people in the midst of their grief. Maybe your relationships have changed during this painful time; sometimes people we thought would be supportive were not, and some people may have pulled away, not knowing what to say or do. Maybe you’ve learned the hard way that you can’t share your story of loss with just everyone, and you aren’t up for trying to figure out who the trustworthy people are. And maybe you just prefer to stay home because you’re not ready for a party right now.
All of these things are okay.
Remember that you won’t be grieving like this forever. Grief is both emotionally and physically exhausting. It is okay to take some time to heal. Some people may not understand, but if you prefer to stay at home this year, that’s okay to do. Be very gentle with yourself as you try to figure out how to navigate this new experience of grieving the loss of your child. Next year, you can re-evaluate and decide what you’re ready to do.
The void where your child should be can feel like a black hole.
There should be another plate at the dinner table, another stocking, another person baking cookies and decorating the Christmas tree, another pile of gifts, another smiling face on the Christmas card. Even if your baby was not due until after Christmas, the idea of facing the space where they used to be or would have been feels staggeringly hard. This is called a secondary loss, in grieving terms. Secondary losses are all of the other things we lose in addition to the person who has died – the things they used to do, the things they would or should be doing. Facing these other losses brings a new set of things to grieve that you may not be prepared for. They can stir up your grief in new ways that can catch you off guard.
As you navigate these new places where your child would be but is not this holiday season, consider finding new ways to include them into your family’s celebrations. Here are some ideas:
- Add their name to the Christmas card or consider holding their picture or an item that represents them in the card photograph.
- Create or purchase a special ornament with their name on it to add to the Christmas tree, so that they can still be a part of your decorating.
- Do something in their honor: plant a tree, release a balloon, put a Christmas decoration on their grave, wear a piece of jewelry with their name on it. They may not have a gift under the tree, but all of these things can be a special way of acknowledging their continued presence in your family and in your heart.
It can feel isolating to see people carrying on with life as usual while yours has been so permanently altered.
Going to stores, walking around the neighborhood, even scrolling on social media can make the loneliness of grief feel even more isolating. Watching as other people continue to decorate, sing Christmas carols, do “normal” while you are struggling just to get out of bed or get through the day without breaking down in sobs can make you feel like you will never be “normal” again. You may feel like you are a stranger in a strange land, and in many ways, grieving is just that. This is something completely new that you are still figuring out, and seeing life continue as usual can just emphasize the differentness that you are in right now. If you are grieving while also trying to maintain a bit of joy and “normal” for other children in your home, that can be even more challenging. Here are a few ideas to help:
- Consider asking others for assistance – shopping, decorating, cooking, babysitting. Many people want to help but don’t know what to do when someone is grieving. And while they may have offered to help, you may not have even known what you needed to ask for. Ask them to pick something up from the store while they’re out. Order things online. See if they can help you swap out the warm-weather clothes for the cold-weather clothes in the children’s drawers. Ask if your children can go to their house for an hour or two so you can rest. If something feels overwhelming, reach out for help.
- Let things go. Your holidays might not look the same this year, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that you’re ruining your family traditions. It just means that you may need to put them on pause this year. Decorating can be simpler. You can send boxed Christmas cards or no cards at all. Maybe you don’t bake as many (or any) cookies. Perhaps you get a precut tree in lieu of going to cut one down. It’s okay to change the way you do things this year. All of those traditions will still be there if you choose to restart them next year.
- Take a break from social media. You may need to “hide” people who are still pregnant or who have new babies. You might need to pull away from some of the groups that you loved interacting with. It’s okay. Eventually, you may get to the place where you’re ready to do those things again, but if you’re not right now, press the pause button.
Church may feel hard right now.
Even if you’ve always had a relationship with God, you may feel a bit disconnected from Him after losing your child. It may feel hard to pray. You may wonder why He didn’t give you the miracle you asked for. It can be challenging to understand why He would create a life only to take it away so soon.
While many of the suggestions above to the challenges of grief during the holidays have been to put things on pause or to take a break, in this case, my suggestion is to keep showing up.
Keep going to church, keep falling at Our Lord’s feet, keep asking Him for help, keep bringing your tears to Him.
Keep reminding yourself of the things that He has already told you about Himself:
- that He is good (Psalm 34:8)
- that His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8)
- that all things work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28)
- that He is trustworthy (Proverbs 3:5)
- that we are known by Him (Jeremiah 1:5)
- that we are seen by Him (Psalm 139:7-12)
- that we are loved by Him (Luke 12:7)
Make the Psalms your prayers: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13) If you are having difficulty praying, you might like using my prayer book with meditations for grieving mothers.
Lean into your faith during this time – even if it feels hard to do, even if it’s not perfect, even if the way you do it looks different now. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Keep turning to Him in your pain.
If you would like some support in your grief for this holiday season, consider my online retreat for grieving mothers. It is a video “course” that you can follow entirely on your own and at your own pace, with tools, encouragement and resources for healing from the pain of child loss. In it, we take a look at scriptures, at other Saints, and at Our Lady of Sorrows for help us to lean into our faith and find hope in our suffering.
It also provides access to a community of support in the form of a private, online, members-only forum and bi-weekly live video calls with me and other retreat participants. We pray with and for each other and share things we’re struggling with. Knowing that you’re not alone is so very helpful. If you would prefer to have the support and understanding of other grieving mothers during this difficult season, you’ll find that here.
As a bereaved mother myself, who has experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss, I understand the pain of child loss, and the unique challenge that the holiday season can bring. I’ve put care into creating a course to support you through this difficult time. Ten years down the road from our loss, I want to reach out a hand and accompany other grieving mothers in their suffering.
I hope you’ll join us!
Most importantly, though, I hope you’ll be gentle with yourself this holiday season and give yourself permission to do things differently if you need to. This intense grief won’t last forever, but allow yourself to tread lightly while it is here, holding fast to the hope that we have to be reunited with our children again thanks to Our Lord’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.
God bless you!