Chapter 9: Birthdays and Holidays

There is no getting around it or past it.  After a child is gone birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries that only come around once a year, and used to mean happy family gatherings, joy, good cheer, excitement, good company and good food, become nightmares. They are dreaded for weeks before they arrive, are survived rather than celebrated, and leave the bereaved parent in an even deeper pit than before.  A woman from Canada who lost her daughter to cancer refers to holidays as “hell-a-days.”

On the first Thanksgiving, when my son had been gone for a little more than 2 months, I spent the morning sobbing and watching a video clip I have of him at his sister’s wedding, over and over.  In the afternoon my husband stuffed a turkey and stuck it in the oven and we went to see a Harry Potter movie.  Since we had no family nearby, this was a good solution to get through the first tough holiday.  A griefnet friend in Australia, who lost her son in a traffic accident on Christmas Day, has spent all day every Christmas Day since his death watching Star Wars movies.  They were his favorite.  For some, it is impossibly painful to gather with relatives who still have their families and try to enjoy a holiday.  Some parents ignore holidays, some travel, some break tradition and do something entirely different than they have ever done before. One parent put up a Christmas tree with angels bearing the names of each of the children of the parents in her support group.  Some feel most comfortable with family and friends.  Do whatever you need to do for yourself.  This is not a time to worry about hurting people’s feelings.  Take a trip, stay in bed, help someone less fortunate, ignore the day entirely.  Switch it to a different day. The best you can hope for in the beginning is survival.  I used to put up a Christmas village every year.  It was an idyllic little scene with a lighted house, a church, a lighthouse, and a store.  There was an ice rink and street lamps and benches.  I used cotton for snow and made hills for the little people with sleds. The year after David died, I took out only the village house.  I put it on a table next to my bed, covered it with “snow” and kept the light on 24/7.  At night I would lie in bed and look at it and imagine my family in that little house, whole, safe, snug, and enjoying the holiday together.

At Christmas, which for many is the worst holiday of all, you might try some of the ideas other grieving parents have adopted:

  • Light candles
  • Help a less fortunate family
  • Donate to a favorite charity
  • Make a memory tree
  • Connect with others – especially those who understand
  • Share stories
  • Include your child in celebrations – reminiscences, toasts, stories
  • Make new rituals,
  • Ask family members and friends to write something about your child – put the envelopes in his or her stocking and open them on Christmas morning
  • Buy a gift for your child, wrap it and take it to Salvation Army or other charity
  • Buy a gift for his or her best friend

Time will help you find a way to celebrate your child’s life over the holidays.

Birthdays may be the most difficult days to suffer, even worse than anniversary dates.  My internet friends kept a list of all of the birthdays of the children whose parents joined the group.  On my son’s birthday after he died, I received an inbox full of e-mails remembering him and me.  They lit candles in his memory and sent off balloons for him.  I went to a park and sent off some birthday balloons with a card tied to them.  Once I ate an entire birthday cake.  These things don’t relieve the pain, but they are something to do to recognize and celebrate the day and the child.  One year on my son’s birthday, I visited a local conservation area in Missouri where I live.  It was a cold sunny February day and not many people were out.  I walked down a path to a pier on the Mississippi River.  It was so peaceful and quiet; all I heard was the water rushing down the river.  I imagined what it would be like on the day that I go to join Dave.  I imagined arriving at an airport after a long journey.  It was like the days before September 11 when loved ones could meet travelers at the plane.  I walked down the jetway and there were Dave and my parents and an old friend who died at a very young age.  I could feel the joy of seeing all of them again.  On my way out of the park I spotted an animal loping along the road. I drove up next to him and stopped.  It was a coyote.  He sat by the side of the road and watched me while I watched him.  I wondered if Dave sent me a coyote to remember the day.  Always be open to comforting thoughts and signs.  It helped me to pick up some kind of object, like a rock or piece of wood, to remember the days when I felt Dave with me.

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