The First Christmas Without You

December 7, 2015


A Christmas tree tells the story of a family, like nothing else. I love to get my ornaments out each year and put together pieces of our family story, our family tree. I put the ornaments gifted to me after we lost our twin daughters, Faith and Grace. That first Christmas took my breath…stepping into a life without my baby girls, while I was still a baby girl, myself. Not much more than a year later, I placed ornaments in memory of our sweet baby boy, Thomas Patrick. All I have of them, are a few tangible items, like ornaments. Scattered throughout the tree, are the handmade offerings of my sweet boys that walk the earth with us. Kindergarten pictures, carefully placed beads, hand painted masterpieces. My mother’s ornaments, each year, another homemade them, beginning with the glorious 70′s, pepper the tree, along with a couple of the childhood ornaments from my love and me. Our Christmas tree tells a story, like all Christmas trees should. Ours is one of brokenness and redemption, or love and grace, and forgiveness so sweet. Of souls saved, of painful goodbyes, of death and rebirth, of survival, perseverance, and a Savior who came and said, “These are Mine.” Abiding, saving, crazy love.

Even as I love to add the ornaments, each year brings the bittersweet ache of missing. And, often…even 19 years later…fresh tears as I remember that first Christmas. The one where I learned about life without innocence, courage beyond my understanding, and the resolve to breathe life even in the throes of the valley of the shadow of death.

Sometimes when I open that box filled with memories, that first Christmas is just yesterday, instead of 19 years ago…

It was November 3, 1996 when my life was forever changed. I was twenty-one years old when I stood beside the tiny grave, the first time. I’ve said many times that I didn’t leave the house for two months after I lost my identical twin daughters, Faith and Grace to twin to twin transfusion syndrome.
I didn’t know how to live in a world where babies from my womb could be stolen from me, where life could end before it began, where my trusting prayers were answered with something I didn’t ask for, a world that was turned upside down, a world without innocence and invincibility. I didn’t want to see the eyes averting my gaze, to hear the stumbling conversations without mention of their names, didn’t even know how to breathe this new suffocating air. Not one place felt right. Only a mother who has walked this path can know what it’s like not to feel familiar in your own skin. To wonder if you will ever know normal again.
People arrived at the door delivering flowers, gifts, ornaments.
Christmas ornaments. Because, no one in our small town could conceive of the horror of losing not one, but two babies . . . and so close to Christmas. And, because so many of them were heartbroken right along with us.
I couldn’t answer the door, couldn’t face this world that dared to keep turning when my baby girls were dead in the ground. And, yes, I know they were not in that cold ground; they dance in heaven, perfect and unbroken. But, someone. Someone tell the aching, empty arms of my twenty-one year old self, who only seemed to comprehend the desperate absence of two baby girls . . . who belonged with their mother.
I was still learning to breathe, when the first Christmas of this new life in unfamiliar skin, approached. My mother took me to pick out a special ornament in memory of my sweet girls, to remember them. To hold something tangible, something that said they were here. I chose two identical ornaments, each depicting a little girl, sitting on a heavenly swing. Imagining how they would play happily in heaven eased my aching heart. The tradition of adding an ornament to our tree in memory of our babies, began that year. It was comforting, to hang them on our Christmas tree, amidst the handmade ornaments of our oldest son. A Christmas tree should tell a family’s story, and having them there, part of our family’s story, helped me breathe a little easier in this thick, stifling new air.
I wanted so desperately to find the fast forward button, to find the way out of this pit of pain, where laughter sounded foreign and was accompanied with guilt, where nothing felt natural or full or real. Life was hollow and everything I once knew was in pieces. I wanted to be where my babies were, and I wanted to be with my son here on earth…and I wanted to know where I had gone…the me that knew my own skin. I didn’t leave the house, to get groceries or pay bills. I didn’t go to family gatherings that year. I couldn’t bear to hear the clichéd responses to my gaping, oozing, seeping, inconvenient wound invading everyone’s nice holiday celebrations.
But, I loved Christmas. And, it seemed so cruel that the joy and wonder of my Savior’s birth, the One who came to save me from certain and inevitable destruction, should be stolen too.
So, in the midst of my self-induced social hibernation, I bundled up warm, took the hand of my almost three year old son, and proclaimed that we were going to see Santa at the local park lighting ceremony. It was a moment of rebellion, a moment of resolve, a moment of survival and living in the land of the living . . . while the sea of grief still roared. It was a “NO, you are not allowed to steal everything” shout to death, grief, and pain.
I stopped at the edge of park, my boots crunching in the snow. My senses heightened to everything offered by life on planet earth as time froze. Every breath breathed in cold and crisp, and each puff of foggy air breathed out…felt to the core of my soul. Every sound of the chatter from the surrounding crowd blended together around me. I was just one mother holding a tiny hand for courage to walk in the midst of the land of the living, willing us to be invisible. So that, for just a moment, I could not be the mother who stood beside that tiny grave. The community band played Christmas carols, as we approached the line for Santa. I clung to the hand of my boy, breathing the cold air, hearing the crunch of my boots on the snow, feeling the depth of everything in the land of the living. No one could know the courage it took to even walk among them in that moment. But, that night, my son sat on Santa’s lap and we breathed life.
Because, death doesn’t win, in the end. Life does.
The ornament tradition continued, when we lost our son, Thomas to Potter’s Syndrome in 1998. We also began donating presents each year, through Operation Christmas Child, filling three shoe boxes with gifts for two little girls and one boy. Over the years, I have found much healing in reaching out to offer comfort to others, the same comfort we received as God carried us in those dark, dark days. This week, we are offering some gifts to help comfort grieving hearts on the SGM blog, while we also share parts of our journey if you would like to join us. Please know that you are not walking this path alone, no matter how incredibly lonely this season — which seems to magnify all that is missing, lost, or imperfect — may feel.
A Savior came. He came for me, and He came for you. He came to breathe life in the midst of our death.

A portion of this post  was originally shared here.

  • Kelly Gerken

    Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly's journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here:


    • Kristen

      December 7, 2015 at 10:05 am

      That was beautiful. Its everything I’ve never been able to put into words. I had that moment last year. I lost my daughter at 22 weeks on Dec 2 2014 to a cord accident. I wanted so badly to skip life all together, forget Christmas. I didn’t though. About a week before Christmas something shifted and I could breathe a little again and I faced it all head on. This year on what should have been her first Christmas I’m finding life hard, made harder by facing 2 Infant nephews one of which is the same age she would have been, but it’s doable. Somehow. I’m making her an ornament This year and every year. It didn’t occur to me last year but it seems fitting to start it This year since it would have been her first year. Thank you for telling your story.

    • Kristin

      December 12, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Thank you for writing this. This is the first Christmas. This article brought me to tears, but many of them were the good kind- the comforting tears after discovering that someone else understands. Much love.

    • Evelyn Grace

      December 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      It is my first Christmas without my daughter, Evelyn Ryann. She passed after three short weeks here with us. It is not easy and I have been writing to help with the healing process. Thank you for sharing your story, hearing others stories of hope during this time of the year can be very helpful in bringing a sense of peace to those traveling the same awful road.

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