I am grateful to my good friend Christine for sharing her advice for those going through the holiday season as a grieving parent, one who has lost their child far too soon. Her advice is straight forward and honest, heartfelt and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing, I know this will help support a mother who may be struggling.
The First Holiday Season Without Our Boy
by Christine Coutu
This Thanksgiving and Christmas season has been difficult to say the least. Not because we’ve felt the pressures of hosting our first Thanksgiving dinner for family, or worried about Christmas gifts or had tons of baking to do. No, those things used to affect me. They used to give me energy, in fact. I actually enjoyed this time of year; especially Christmas. I love baking, shopping for people, wrapping gifts and eating those special treats you only eat at holiday parties. I would be lying if I said that I never got stressed around the holidays, and in fact I’d argue that if you claim not to feel at least a little pressure this time of year, you need your head examined! ;-)
This year is different for me. In many, many ways. Frankly, I absolutely dread going out in public. I have come very close to tearing down decorations in stores and punching people who tell me to have a “wonderful holiday”. This year, Bing Crosby can take his “White Christmas” and shove it.
See because this year, there will be a very small but extremely painful and noticeable absence in our midst; our son who passed away just over 5 months ago before he was born at 38 weeks. An infection killed him. It almost killed me too. After he was born, I wouldn’t stop bleeding. A trauma team of surgeons, 3 surgeries, 8 days in the ICU and 2 total weeks in the hospital later, I finally went home; without my son, without a uterus and with a very, very long and painful road to recovery.
My husband and I have a mountain to climb in terms of attempting to wrap our heads and hearts around what happened to our perfect little family. We’ll be climbing that mountain for years to come.
The holidays (especially this first year) are a part of that mountain and so here are the things that I’ve quickly learned about surviving this season after a loss like mine. I’m still working through it as we clearly have just gotten into the holiday swing, but here it goes.
- When you go shopping, do it alone if you can. That sounds crazy. Yet, for me it works. I can mumble under my breath about the “stupid Christmas stuff” in my way, or the holly jolly spirit everyone has that makes me want to puke without having to explain myself to anyone. I can also block things out and be a “Scrooge” if I want to, zipping past people with my cart and keeping my head down. Lastly, I don’t need to be my super cheery self when I’m alone because sometimes I don’t freaking want to, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. Pretending to be happy takes a lot of emotional work, damnit! And in my state of grief and physical recovery, remembering my grocery list and how to even get to the store can be difficult some days. I’m not kidding. I once turned around in my car three times before I remembered where I was going and how to get there. Oh! And one more thing. If I need to go out of the store, make a beeline for my car and have a sobbing, messy breakdown after seeing another newborn or just because it’s an extra hard day, I can do that and don’t need to worry about freaking anyone out!
- Do not apologize. If you knew me before my life fell out from underneath me, you’d know that I apologized a lot. I was also a self-proclaimed people pleaser. Nope. Not anymore. I’ve learned that life is too short (cliche, I know) to be concerned about other’s feelings when it comes to speaking up for my needs. Now, I try to speak up for what I need and advocate for myself and my family. While I attempt to do this with love, I will admit that I probably come off “witchy” to those who know me because it’s not something I ever did before in such an upfront and blatantly honest manner. Oh well.
- Save yourself the stress, don’t buy gifts. This year, we are not giving out Christmas gifts (at least not from my husband and me, my 2 year old will paint cheap ornaments etc for grandparents and the like). Instead, we are giving to a charity. The organization through which we sponsor a child always has a Christmas catalog in which you can order “Christmas gifts” like goats, seeds, school books etc for people in other countries. This year, they have “safe baby delivery kits” available and so we are buying two of them in honor of my son. If there is an organization close to your heart or something that might be connected to the child you’ve lost, donate to them instead of giving gifts this year. I’m writing a letter and sending those out in lieu of Christmas cards to inform our family and friends of what we’re doing. Which leads me to….
- Holiday cards etc. If they’re too painful. Don’t do them. We aren’t. Heck no. A Christmas picture to have for all time that will remind me of this period of hell that we’re going through? Ummm….no thanks, I’ll pass. This also includes any “routine” or obligatory Christmas pictures your family or extended family may take during parties this year. Either politely express your plan to not be a part of said pictures or show up after the pictures are taken if they are usually done at a certain time during the party (before dinner, gifts etc). Remember too that you are sharing your intentions, not asking permission here. Don’t say “do you mind if…” because you mind, you don’t want to participate in picture taking, so say so.One mantra that has helped me is actually a quote from Jesus in the Bible when he says “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37). Simple, to the point. Say what you mean, mean what you say and don’t muddy the waters with “if you don’t mind”’s or “would it be okay if”’s.
- Do something to remember your child. If you have lost an older child and there was something specific that he or she enjoyed during this time of year, go and do it as a family. Celebrate the life of your loved one that way. I’ve also seen online suggestions of hanging a stocking, having a certain ornament or something like that to represent and memorialize the child or baby lost. For us, none of those things hit home. In fact, on the 15th of October (Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day) when I lit a candle for my son, I wanted to throw it across the room 2 hours later because it just angered me to look at it. This year, we will honor our son by spending time as a family but will maybe do something like this in the future. We’ll see where this roller coaster ride of grief takes us over the next couple of years.
- Decide what your family needs and do it (again, no apologies). My husband and I have struggled with this one, honestly. However, we eventually decided that the best thing for us this Christmas was to spend it alone, with our 2 year old, and away. We just do not want to celebrate. Thanksgiving is a tough holiday for us, too and I’m not discounting that. However, for the both of us there is so much more tradition wrapped up in Christmas (and it’s my preferred holiday of the two) that the absence of my son this year would be just unbearable. We’ve met some resistance from family but again, are standing up for what we feel is best for our family. In all honesty, we’re excited about it! To get away, do something different and spend time together. If this is something that you need to do as a family, then do it; sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit! You might not need to go away completely but maybe it’s just to celebrate with family or friends you’ve never spent the holiday with before, or go out to eat or order in, or create a brand new tradition for your immediate family on Christmas morning. Whatever it is! Do what feels right.
At the end of the day, this is your grief process, nobody else’s - and never ever let anyone else enforce or put their expectations of how you should grieve this holiday season (or any other time of the year) onto you.
If people are telling you to “get over it”, that it’s “time to move on” or that “maybe you need/want to/really should be with family”, ignore them. Do whatever makes you and your spouse - your immediate, nuclear family feel the best. Grief is a process, a journey, and ultimately something that never goes away and to be honest doesn’t get easier. For me at least, it hasn’t gotten easier with time; over these last 5 months I’ve just had more practice putting one foot in front of the other to get through my day and have found there to be more space in between sobbing sessions.
If you’re reading this because you just experienced a loss and need these suggestions, I’m sorry. Truly I am. Nobody understands what it’s like to lose a child, except for another parent who has lost one too. If I could give you a big hug, share a cup of tea and cry with you, I would.
My husband and I both would, but since we can’t, know that you are loved, and that we will pray for you. And remember that some of the best things to heal a crushed and broken heart is love and laughter so be sure that no matter what you do these next few weeks, you get some of those things in, too.
If you’re reading this for a family member or friend, on their behalf I would just ask that you keep two mantras in mind this holiday season (and for a long time to come as the journey of grief is ever changing); “whatever you need” and “we’re here when you’re ready”. Those are the phrases that have helped us the most over the last 5 months.