Surviving the Holidays After the Death of a Child

That holiday-pang hit my stomach the first October after Daniel died. Greeting me at an arts and craft shop were gold and silver stockings, a Christmas tree draped with turquoise balls and a wreath of pinecones and red berries. What was this? And was “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” playing as well? It was only October.

I had anticipated that Christmas and the holidays would be tough. In fact, I’d wake on those cold mornings after Daniel died in February and be grateful that it was still months until his August birthday and even more months until Christmas. I dreaded living both without him. I would have preferred to have been steeped in cow manure. At least then I could take a hot bath with sweet smelling bubbles and be rid of the stench. But bereavement isn’t that way. As those who had gone on before let me know, you have to live through it.

Christmas came. I did live through it. It continues to happen as do the other significant days of the calendar year. Daniel never arrives at any of them although his memory lives on. By incorporating him into these days of festivity, I can cope.

Some of you have your child’s birthday and/or anniversary day within the November through January season. These days, in addition to the holidays everyone else is celebrating, make the season even more complicated and painful, I’m sure.

I offer eleven tips I’ve used to survive the holidays. Some are my own suggestions and some are borrowed from the many who walk the path of grief.

1. Know you will survive. Others have done it and you will, too. Keep in mind that your first Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day will not be easy.

2. Find at least one person you can talk to or meet with during the holiday season. Perhaps this person has gone through a few Thanksgivings and Christmases before and can give you some helpful ideas that have worked for her.

3. Things will be different this holiday season and perhaps for all the rest to come. Don’t think you have to do the “traditional” activities of years past when your child was alive. Your energy level is low. If no one in your household minds, skip putting up the tree. Forget spending hours making your holiday cookies.

4. Spend the holidays with those who will let you talk about your child. You will need to have the freedom to say your child’s name and recall memories, if you choose to do so. Your stories about your child are wonderful legacies. Tell them boldly again and again.

5. If going into the mall or stores brings too much pain, shop for gifts online or through mail-order catalogs. Thinking everyone is happily shopping at the malls with intact lives while your heart is crushed is terribly tough. Go easy on yourself.

6. Getting away from the house is an idea that worked for my family. The first Christmas without Daniel we went to a nearby town and lived in the Embassy Suites. The kids enjoyed the indoor pool and breakfast buffets. Christmases that followed were spent at a rented cottage on the shore and the Christmas we rented the beach house, we were able to invite extended family to join us. We all shared in the cooking.

7. Create something to give to those who have helped you throughout the year. I made some very simple tree ornaments with “In Memory of Daniel” stamped on them and gave them to friends that first Christmas.

8. Decorate the grave. Put up a plastic Christmas tree with lights. Sometimes being busy with decorating the grave gives a feeling of doing something for a child we can no longer hold.

9. Do something in memory of your child. Donate to a charity or fund in his memory. Volunteer. My oldest daughter Rachel and I volunteer at the Hospice Tree of Remembrance each December and share memories of Daniel as we spend this time together.

10. If your bereavement support group has a special candle-lighting service to remember the children in your area who have died, attend it. Doing something in memory of your child with others who understand the pain these holidays hold can be therapeutic.

11. Spend time reflecting on what the season is about. Everyone around you may be frantic with attending parties, services, shopping and visiting relatives. Perhaps you used to be the same way. Now you may want to avoid some of the festivities. Give yourself permission to excuse yourself from them. Light a candle in your favorite scent. Record some thoughts in a journal. This is great therapy, too.

One day you will wake up and it will be January 2. The holidays will have ended. You will have made it. If you are like me, you will find that surviving the tinsel has made you stronger and although you may cry, somewhere within you, you will feel that core of new steel.

Alice Wisler

More Articles Written by Alice

Alice J. Wisler, founder of a grief-support organization, Daniel’s House Publications, is a full-time writer and author of contemporary novels. In 1997, her four-year-old son Daniel died from cancer treatments. Since then, her writing focus has been on how to help others in grief. She gives Writing the Heartache workshops across the country. Through her organization, she designs and sells comfort cards/remembrance cards and at her Carved By Heart imprint, carves personalized remembrance plaques. When she isn't writing or speaking, she is promoting her novels---Rain Song (2008), How Sweet It Is (2009), Hatteras Girl (2010), A Wedding Invitation (2011), and Still Life in Shadows (2012). Her devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morining, offers comfort and purpose for those dealing with grief and loss. Her cookbooks of memory---Down the Cereal Aisle, Memories Around the Table, and Slices of Sunlight, contain stories of food and memories of children who have died. In 2009, Alice married Carl in Las Vegas, and they live with her three children in Durham, NC. To Listen to Alice's Radio show To learn more about Alice visit her website: http://www.alicewisler.com and go to her blogs: http://www.alicewisler.blogspot.com and http://www.writingtheheartache.blogspot.com/

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  • Lance Boldt says:

    These are great tips. I’ll be sharing them in our grief support meeting tomorrow.

    Thanks for wharing and I wish you the best this holiday season.

    Here’s a link to some of my thoughts from last year and what helped our family after losing our sons to cancer.

    http://nutsandboldts.typepad.com/chromosomes_cancer_kids/2009/11/the-holidays-after-the-death-of-a-child.html

  • Beth Heaney says:

    Alice, thanks for this article. I sent it to my mom and dad. We lost my brother this year.

  • Beth,

    I know your heart is broken, and I hate that you and your parents have to experience the loss of your brother.

    Surround yourselves with those who loved him.

    Sending lots of hugs your way.
    Alice

  • Corinne Ruiz says:

    Alice, my 14 year old daughter Olivia, died April 22, 2004. Yes, it has been five years but I find the holidays still very painful. My son became addicted to heroin after the death of his sister. He is now serving one year; so I feel as though I have lost both of my children. I woke up this morning and the tears just started flowing. I felt that ugly feeling in my stomach. I felt so lost, wondering if anything in my life will ever be okay. This year my husband’s family would like us to travel and join them for Christmas. My heart is not into it. Maybe if my son were not on drugs, in jail and home with me, it would be able to. I did vist with my son today and it just hurts so much knowing where he is. When our visit ends, I hug him and don’t want to let go. I come home and go into his bedroom, then I go into Olivia’s bedroom and I cannot believe this is real.

    Just not sure what to do. I know it’s one day at a time.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    Corinne,
    Olivia and Manuel’s mom

    • Sue says:

      I understand totally.My Danielle passed in 04 as well. The pain is fresh today as it was the day she left us. I too wonder will I ever stop crying all the time. I miss her soo…..

      • Sue, the first years after the death of a child is having to hear the worst possible music without any respite. The sounds are continual and there is no off button. In time, we do learn to cope and handle our new lives. It’s such a blessing to have this site so that we can share with others who understand us. Weep boldly as you miss your sweet Danielle.

  • Corinne,

    I wept as I read your words. I am so sorry for your continual pain. I will email you soon.

    Alice

  • Regina gray says:

    My son passed away September 5 2014

  • Anna says:

    thank you For sharing. I lost my youngest Natalie at the age of 28. She was diagnosed with scleroderma during her 5th month of pregnancy the doctors warned her if she did not terminate her pregnancy she wound die. But after 9 miscarriages before 3 months she told the doctor’s if that is God’s will so be it. They gave her a couple of weeks after birth. I put her in a trial and she lived 6 1/2 years long enough to be a mom and her son has wonderful memories before her passing this year. So I’m going through all my firsts in a quiet grieving house and her son now with my other daughter. I don’t think my other children understand how hard all the first are. I need to be around them to help distract me from my pain. After 8 years of caring for a sick child and the laughter around the house keeps us all in the dark waiting for the light to come back

    • Alice Wisler says:

      Anna, thank you for sharing your story. Hugs to you across the miles as you go through this new life, these painful and sorrowful days. I hope that the happy memories will one day outshine the darkness.