I’ll never forget my first Christmas after loss.
Less than a week before that Christmas, my fallopian tube ruptured, and we lost the little baby we had already loved so much. In the midst of my loss, I went on a mini vacation with family where I was expected to shop, eat dinner out, and otherwise behave normally. I felt anything but normal in my grief.
Then came the church services to attend, and the family dinners. My body was still swollen from surgery, and so the only pants that fit were maternity. The cruel irony of the situation was not lost on me. I numbly sat through all our traditions, and wondered how I would ever enjoy Christmas again.
Christmas did not prove to get much easier as the years passed. The following Christmas came days after a failed foster-to-adopt placement. Then, a few years and a few more losses later, we faced one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. We returned our foster baby home to his bio mom after raising him for a year and a half just days after Christmas.
This year, we are hopefully adding to our family, and in that brings much joy. But all the anniversaries of years’ past are not lost on me. And while I’m clinging to hope this year, I’m also bracing for the triggers of loss and grief I know are to come. I know I’ll be thinking of the children who we didn’t get to bring home — and the one-year-anniversary of the last time we ever saw our foster son.
But — unlike that first year after our loss — I’m able to go into this season with a survival plan. The last few difficult Christmases have given me a few coping tools that have helped me honor my grief in the midst of the celebrations. I hope the following 8 tips will also help you gently navigate your Christmas this year while also honoring your own grief and loss.
1. Take charge of your schedule.
Christmastime is a busy time that comes with lots of social pressures and engagements. There are work parties to attend, family dinners to orchestrate, cookie swaps to bake for . . . the list goes on. Through it all, not only are you expected to attend and participate — but you are expected to be HAPPY in the process. This is no small feat for a grieving parent.
So this season, I want you to give yourself permission to take charge of your schedule.
- Taking charge means giving yourself permission to say no to any social event or expectation that you feel will drain you.
- Taking charge means giving yourself permission to gracefully back out out of a commitment you made when you were having a great day at the time — only to realize on the day of the event, that you no longer have the stamina to attend.
- Taking charge means putting limitations on how much you are willing to participate. Will you attend for an hour, then leave early? Will you come to the potluck, but only bring store-bought items and forego the labor of love in the kitchen?
- Taking charge means creating a code word with your significant other so that once you have reached your ability to cope, you can communicate your need to leave with your partner quickly and easily.
- Taking charge means carving out time to actively remember the loved ones you are missing. Perhaps you attend a memorial candle lighting ceremony. Or you schedule your own memorial time privately, or with loved ones. Whatever you do — make sure you put time to remember on your calendar.
- Taking charge means saying yes to the people and events that bring you joy. While the holidays can be hard — this is no time to intentionally martyr yourself. Make room for the joy the same as you make room for the grief.
2. Embrace physical reminders of your loss.
When our ectopic baby Olivia passed five days before Christmas, I was heartbroken. When I set up our tree that year, I was joyfully expecting another child. Now Christmas was here, and our baby was gone. I needed some sort of physical reminder that she was real — even if only for such a short time. I decided to buy a brand-new pair of newborn shoes, tie a ribbon through the loops on the back, and create my own “ornament” for the tree. It was my declaration that our precious, individual child had left her mark in our lives, and whose shoes no one else could ever fill.
As our losses began to stock up, so did my shoe ornaments. We now have five sets of shoes on our tree — and each one brings me great comfort each year.
What can you do to physically represent your grief, or the child you lost, this Christmas? Perhaps you will hang a stocking for your child this Christmas. Or set a place setting for them at the table. Maybe you will light a candle each night.
Whatever you choose — having that physical reminder that you are remembering someone this Christmas may bring you much comfort when it feels like everyone else has forgotten.
3. Keep traditions. Or lose them.
Some people find comfort in traditions. Knowing what to expect, going through the ritual, brings a familiarity and homey feeling that is comforting. For others, doing the same old, same old, when everything in their world is NOT same old, same old, is completely draining.
When you look at the traditions you tend to keep over Christmas — do you feel a sense of comforting anticipation? Or does the idea of a tradition fill you with dread?
Give yourself permission to keep or toss whatever doesn’t feel right this year. This doesn’t mean you’ll never take up those traditions again. But maybe a change of pace is necessary, if only for this season. And maybe, you’ll find a new tradition that honors your loss that you will want to keep around for years to come.
4. Make self-care a priority.
And when I say that, I really mean make YOU a priority.
Take a break from Facebook, and everyone else’s “perfect” families and “perfect” Christmases. Nourish your body with nutritious food — and nourish your soul with the occasional glass of wine or eggnog. Take breaks to just get outside, if even for a short walk or a breather. Take a relaxing bath to de-stress. Schedule some time with your therapist so you have a safe person who can help you navigate the exaggerated highs and lows that are inherent to the holidays. Escape in a good book, or a binge-worthy Netflix show. Put on the fire each night, and snuggle with your significant other or living children.
Maybe this won’t be just a season of survival for you. Maybe, just maybe, it can be a season of refreshment for your hurting soul.
5. Write a letter to your loved one.
This Christmas, I’m especially missing our foster son. December 31 marks one year since we have been able to see him, kiss him, or tell him we love him. Anniversaries, when they involve saying any sort of good-bye, can be so difficult to navigate on their own — let alone when they fall in line with the holidays. This year, I plan to write him a letter on our anniversary. He will likely never get to read the letter — but it’s my way of keeping the lines of communication and love open. I will tell him of what we missed about him this year, and how we had hoped to celebrate this season with him.
What would you tell your loved ones who you are missing this Christmas? Perhaps you’ll be writing to the babies you had hoped to conceive this year, but weren’t able to. Perhaps you are writing to your child who has passed away, the child you had such love and dreams for. Perhaps you are also missing other family members this year. Whatever it is that you wish you could have said to them — go ahead and say it. Even if they’ll never have a chance to read it.
6. Avoid unnecessary triggers.
Will the giant Santa display in the middle of the mall trigger grief because all you can see is the child who should be whispering their Christmas list in Santa’s ear — but instead, is gone? Will seeing people’s “Baby’s first Christmas” photos on Facebook make you feel only more sad about what you are missing out on? Will family-friendly outing you had planned only serve to remind you that someone in your family is missing?
Sometimes, grief triggers are helpful because they can force us to face the feelings we want to hide but actually need to be expressed. But when they catch us off guard, when they start a PTSD response, or when we can’t actually deal with the emotions they arouse — triggers can actually be more harmful than helpful.
Try to think in advance of what might be triggering, and come up with a plan of how to deal with the emotions. Or, if possible, avoid the trigger altogether. You can do all your holiday shopping online, for instance, and totally skip the Santa display at the mall. Or stop checking your Facebook feed, and instead, just post on your own wall.
Creating a plan to deal with or avoid triggers can take some of the surprise grief out of the holiday season — and give you just a bit more control over how you face your loss this season.
7. Allow yourself to feel all the feels.
I’m not just talking about all the hard stuff. I’m talking about giving yourself permission to feel all the feels of the holidays — the good and the bad. Many of us believe that because our child is not with us, or because we are still actively grieving, we
cannot should not laugh, smile or otherwise feel merry. Survivor’s guilt is a thing.
But the truth is, our loved ones would want us to smile when we want to smile, and laugh when we find joy. The presence of joy does not take away the sadness we will always feel. It merely indicates that we are indeed still alive, still human, still standing.
We are not just loss or infertility. We’re a whole person, feeling everything a whole person does. For this season, those feelings may include joy and happiness, even for just moments. Make space for the joy when it comes.
8. Remember the reason for the season.
Each time we faced the loss of a child at Christmastime, I was angry with God. I wondered if he had any idea how this felt. And not so gently, he reminded me . . . Christmas was the very essence of God giving up a son. He knew even better than I did in that moment what grief felt like.
We celebrate Christmas because God sent his only son to earth. We see his son as a gift to us. But on the other side of that was a Father who had never been separated from his son before, and had sent his son to ultimately die at the hands of the world he was trying to save.
Our moment of rejoicing came at the price of God’s sorrow.
Whenever I get caught up in feeling sorry for myself during the holidays, or wish that our story had turned out differently, I remind myself that God is well acquainted with the loss of a child. And that I am not alone in my feelings of loss.
Christmas is often hard and lonely during loss. But my hope is that you will be able to find a way to honor your loss this season in the midst of all the celebrations. That there will be space enough for both the joy and the grief.
If you have also gone through a difficult Christmas, what are some tips you would pass on to someone new to heartache this season?