Celebrating the Holidays After the Death of your Child

After my husband and I lost our daughter Amanda, age 18, the first few holidays held anxiety and dread for us. We anticipated waves of grief and deep sadness because she was not present to celebrate with us, and we wondered if we would ever find meaning in the holidays again. We did find a few techniques that have helped us through the years and you may find our experiences beneficial to you, especially in the early years following your loss.

Have a plan. It is good to be mindful that the day will probably be difficult and it is helpful not be caught unawares. Thinking through the day in advance will lessen the pain when the big day arrives. If there are other family members who share your loss, you may want to discuss the plan together.

Consider a change of scene and activities: : If you have never gone away for Thanksgiving or Christmas, this may be a time to consider doing so. A change of scene may help to re-focus your attention and lessen your pain for awhile. On our first Thanksgiving after Amanda died, we left California and went to visit family in Florida. The changes of scene and of tradition got us through the day, and the holiday turned out to be better than we feared.

The following year we were ready to celebrate with family in California, our usual tradition. However, we thought about ways to change the fabric of the day to distract us from our loss. We took a hike the morning of Thanksgiving and then went out for coffee, things we had not done before; on Christmas morning, when we used to open gifts with Amanda, we went to a light movie. These became new activities that we continue still, 17 years later.

Consider changing  some of your traditions If you always set the dinner table in a particular place, the absence of one place setting may be painfully poignant. Perhaps you can change the usual seating arrangement or change the location of the table.  On the other hand, you may find it more meaningful to continue your usual way of doing things. You will find the right course of action for you if you think through what will work.

Putting up a Christmas tree the first year after Amanda died was very painful for my husband and me. Seeing all the little ornaments she had made through the years, and remembering the times we put up the tree together depressed me. The answer I found was to not put up a tree in the next few years Instead, I bought masses of poinsettias, wreaths and greens for the mantel. It became a new tradition.

Consider volunteering around the holidays: Being reminded that others are in pain or in need and doing what we can to alleviate their suffering can lessen our own pain. For many years, I helped organize an event near Christmas which provided warm clothing to children in need. This activity brought meaning to the holidays for me.

Consider an escape plan: If you do not know how you will react to the holiday and are going to be seeing other people, you may want to let them know in advance that the holidays will be difficult for you and that you might need to leave early. Even if you have invited people to your own home, perhaps you can give yourself permission, if need be,  to tell them that you are overwhelmed and need to go to your room. True friends will understand.

In the years following your loss, you will find ways to mark and celebrate the holidays that work for you. And, as time passes, you will once again look forward to celebrating these events.  While these days will never be the same, and you  will always miss your child, the day can nonetheless hold joy. That is my wish for you.

Susan Gilbert 2010

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Susan Gilbert

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Suzanne Redfern (left) is the president of Redfern Ranches, Inc. Her thirty-two-year-old daughter died of lung cancer in 1999. She lives in Palo Alto, Callifornia. Susan K. Gilbert (right) was a pharmaceutical executive for many years in the Silicon Valley and is now active in the community, serving on a board for the San Francisco homeless. Her eighteen-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident in 1993. They are co-authors of The Grieving Garden and can be reached through their website, www.thegrievinggarden.com. Susan & Suzanne appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Living With the Death of a Child.“ To hear them being interviewed on this show, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley102508.mp3

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  • Sacha says:

    I agree with changing things up. This is our second holiday season without our son, who was 17. I couldn’t handle doing everything the same, the same traditions, without him. And we did sit at our table last year for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Both were disasters, so won’t be doing that again. Will find something “different” this year. We did go out to eat for Thanksgiving and to a movie, it felt like it could be a “new” tradition for us.