by Angela Miller
For a bereaved parent, this time of year might not be the season of Yuletide-cheer it once was. Your eggnog might taste like crap even if it is homemade. The lights and Lords-a-leapin’ may have lost their luster. The whole season might feel like a cruel, sick joke. Worse yet, you might feel like the only person who has one or more missing from your holiday table.
The anxiety of the looming holidays can be downright debilitating. Surviving it can often feel virtually impossible.
Guess what? That’s perfectly ok. Not easy, but it’s ok to allow it to be exactly what it is– nothing more and nothing less. If you feel like shit, allow it. Though repugnant, this is your new holiday reality. For now.
You certainly don’t have to like it. It’s also possible you might need some new traditions and tools to help you survive. Here is the good news: there are compassionate souls ready and willing to offer their open arms, shoulders to cry on, and hard-earned wisdom, to help you navigate the emotional landmines of the holidays. Seek the support of these gentle and loving hearts often.
Keep in mind, none of this is simple or “easy” to do. Nothing post-loss is. In fact, oftentimes it is excruciatingly difficult, and might feel more like torture and a whole lot of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ than ‘Happy Holidays!!!’
Just remember all you have to do is survive, and you get to decide how you’ll best do that.
People will probably forget that it’s your job, and not theirs, so you might have to gently remind them. That your heart is the one that is broken beyond repair.
Here is what has helped me survive the holidays these past six years as a bereaved parent. Keyword: survive.
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6 Ways to Survive the Holidays Without Your Child:
1). Practice sensational self-care. Give yourself permission to take good care of yourself. You deserve it. And you need it. Trust me. Treat yourself as you would a physically wounded person with deep, visible, bleeding wounds. Just because emotional wounds are invisible, doesn’t make them less debilitating, or less real. Remember that. Remind your loved ones of this too. Treat yourself extra gently this time of year– like the carefully marked packages that read, Fragile: handle with care. More than that, be proactive. Have a plan to give yourself the gift of good self-care all season long.
2). Remove all expectations. Free yourself to participate in as little or as much holiday hoopla as you’d like. Forget about everyone’s expectations, especially yours and people who might not understand your pain. Adjust your expectations to be realistic with what is. Keyword: realistic. This year might look much different than last year, so adjust accordingly with what you can handle right now, as you are, in this moment. As hard as it might be, try not to compare what you are able to do this year with anyone else, including past versions of yourself. Yes, I know. So. painfully. hard. But try to do it anyway. Be realistic, radically kind, and oh-so-loving with yourself.
3). Just show up (or not.) Allow yourself to change locations, holiday traditions or defy social norms. Allow yourself to show up, or not. Here’s the thing: nothing is “normal” anymore. Normal died the day your child did. Which means you’re now living in the land of defying normal. Anything goes. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do this year, even if it seems “abnormal” or outlandish to yourself or anyone else.
Allow yourself the “5 minute rule,” where you decide 5 minutes before an event if you can make it or not. Communicate this with your host beforehand. Thank them for the invitation, and let them know you’re not sure if you’ll be able to make it, but if you’re up to it, you’ll be there. That alone might feel liberating and more do-able. Less pressure, and the freedom to honor what you need in that moment.
Laugh when you need to laugh; cry when you need to cry; let yourself wallow if you need to wallow. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. They’re not in survival mode, you are. Staying in bed on the best mattress until the holidays pass, or ditching town altogether are all completely acceptable options. Think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to do something completely different that shakes up all expectations. And possibly your Great Aunt Bertha. What worked in the past might not work now, and that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what’s needed to survive the holidays without your precious child.
4). Honor your child in ways that are meaningful to you. Keyword: meaningful to you. Light a candle at your holiday table in loving memory of your precious child. Say your child’s name. Ask others to do the same. Acknowledge the glaringly empty chair. Participate in random acts of kindness in loving memory of your precious child gone too soon. Donate your favorite grief book to your local library, church, hospital, grief center, therapist’s office, or to someone who needs it. Volunteer at an orphanage. Volunteer right in your neighborhood. Or, one of my all-time favorites: donate gifts for children who are the exact same age your child would be.
No matter what you choose to do, spread hope and help others, even if you don’t feel like you have much to give. Whatever you give will be multiplied, and it will be more than enough. After all, the true gift is in the giving, especially in the midst of deep grief.
5). Feel your feelings, no matter how messy they are. Give yourself ample space to feel however you feel, including opposite emotions at the same time. You might feel hopeful and defeated; joyful and sorrowful; happy and sad; grateful and not; angry and peaceful. And all of these emotions might be even more amplified during the holidays. A wise person once told me that being able to hold space for contradictory emotions at the same time is a sign of extraordinary emotional maturity. It’s true. You’re not crazy– even though it may feel like it– you’re extraordinary. Remind yourself of this often.
Especially every time you feel ripped apart at the seams by your dueling and opposing emotions. It’s hard work to continually feel that way. Grief is unpredictable, exhausting, confusing and messy. Do your best to feel all of it until you need a break from feeling. It’s ok to take a break and re-set. Deep breathing, chatting with a friend, a brisk walk outside, yoga, exercise, herbal tea (kratom tea has been an absolute favorite for me lately), and healthy eating are all good ways to support the emotional toll grief takes on your body during the holidays.
6). Ask for help. Whether online, or in person, compassionate, empathetic support saves lives. Period. Having a village of support can often make the difference between surviving or not. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a village, but I had one person– and that was somehow enough to keep my head above water. Hopefully you have a village, or at least one dearest one who knows how to offer you compassionate and loving grief support whenever you need it. If you don’t have anyone, count me in your corner. Seriously.
Everyone needs someone to lean on. There is no worse feeling in the world than feeling utterly and completely alone on your own deserted planet called: Bereaved Parent. Do yourself a favor and ask for help, for whatever you need. Be proactive by having your core support “team” at the ready. For whatever might come. Your “team” might be made up of one person, or ten– it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a support person will be there when you need him or her most. It might be your spouse, your best friend, or your therapist. Whether you need someone to listen, cry with you, or lie in the ditch of grief with you, have these dear souls ready. As your safety net, your safe place to land, your whispers of hope. It might be the one sure thing that eases your mind and heart this holiday season, in a way nothing else will.
In the words of Sarah Longacre, “Let your support rise up to meet you.”
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Remember, this is not an exhaustive list of ways to survive. These are just some ideas of things that might be helpful to you. Take what is helpful, leave what is not.
I’m no expert, only an expert at trusting my own heart and doing what works for me.
Just like grief, there are no rules for surviving holiday grief. Do what you need to do to survive. Honor your child how you need to, and do what feels best for your fragile, aching heart. You are missing a huge piece of you, so do whatever you need to do to find a sliver of peace.
Remember that no one, no one, no one has the exact relationship you do with your precious child. No one will feel the exact same piercing agony, pain and longing you do for your child. Therefore, no one has a right to give you unsolicited advice about how to tend to your soul-deep wounds– this holiday season– or any day of the year.
Throw out well-meaning but unhelpful advice. Throw out any to-do lists that don’t work for you.
Except maybe this one:
That’s it. Pretty much sums up everything you need to know for surviving the holidays, right?
Probably not, but it’s a great reminder to keep things as simple as possible. Realistic. Do-able. If it feels like too much, listen. Follow your heart. Let it lead you through this holiday season. Your heart knows exactly what it needs to comfort itself and to prevent further damage and unnecessary bruising.
Trust your own broken, beating heart.
And if anyone gives you crap, blame me.
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A version of this article originally appeared in Still Standing Magazine and All That Love Can Do.
Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park photos (c) Todd Lowry
Text and images © Angela Miller 2015. All rights reserved.
Angela Miller is a writer, speaker and grief advocate who provides support and solace to those who are grieving the loss of a child. She is the author of You Are the Mother of All Mothers: A Message of Hope for the Grieving Heart, founder of the award-winning community A Bed For My Heart, writer for the Open to Hope Foundation and Still Standing Magazine. Angela writes candidly about child loss and grief without sugar coating the reality of life after loss. Her writing and her book have been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, MPR, BlogTalk Radio, Open to Hope Radio and Writerly, among others. When she’s not writing, traveling, or healing hearts, you can find Angela making every moment count with her two beautiful, blue-eyed boys.
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Thank you, Angela. Tears are literally streaming down my face as this will be my first Christmas without my beautiful son. My tradition is Christmas brunch, and he has helped me cook it for the past two or three years. I have no clue how to do this. I don’t want to change my tradition because others matter too. I have not had a Christmas morning without him for 23 years, and I simply don’t know how to do it. This may help.
This will also be my first xmas in 23 years without my beautiful son , much love to you and yours , it’s good to know we are not alone xx
Kimber Huffmaster says
I too have tears flowing down my cheeks…out of control tears…I’m happy I am alone and can let it flow.
This will be my 6th Christmas without my oldest son…the first one I was quite numb…I’d love to bring that back, life didn’t hurt as much when I was in that stage…
I feel sickly most of the time…feels like my life is out of control…
Really just want to get through the holidays…and now!!!
I struggle every day to force happiness…but its not real…
Feel as if I have to do this for the people around me but sure doesn’t seem like they remember I am a broken person…
Even my sisters/parents seem cold to me…they act as if I’m over sensitive and I may be…but I feel like I have no control over my emotions at times…just wish they could understand…
Until then I feel very alone 🙁
Thank you for being there for me and others such as me…
Debra Greenfield says
There are those of us who are there with you if only in thought ,this is my first Thanksgiving and first Christmas without my precious son . Just know that you and others like us are the only ones who know how this terrible pain feels. God bless
Catherine A Burns says
I get comfort, mostly from moms who have lost children. I lost a brother when he was 35, and then a year and a half ago, I lost my 35 year old daughter in a horrific accident. I helped my mom through her grieving process. I had little children when my brother died, and could not imagine living without either of them. I’ve had to distance myself from some friends, and almost completely eliminate 2 family members. Those individuals require too much energy from me, and that is the last thing I can deal with at this time. I’ve met moms who are in my situation, and we cry together, which actually gives me energy because I can be my real self. Be your real self, and accept what follows. If you can’t count on friends and family to accept you, they will drain you. Put it in God’s hands, and he will bring what you need into your life to get you through the process. It is truly a private pain. I am amazed at how many of us mom’s are out there, But, if you think about it, everyone who leaves this world had a mom.
I’m not sure if I will make it through the day let alone Christmas. My son died 55 days ago and I feel more sad and empty everyday. I cry a lot, don’t sleep much, can’t think about anything other than my son not being alive anymore. Just when I think I am okay-then I’m not!!! God keeps me from being a total mess, but then I do fall apart and the cycle just repeats itself. My life, my heart, my everything will never be the same again. I’m not sure I can do this everyday. It’s hard. I love my son so much and miss him every second of every minute of everyday. Mom loves you Nick!!????
Just keep holding on. Time is not a healer, it’s an adaptor…soothe yourself, in anyway you can, hot baths, music, poetry. Just hold on. That’s all you can do. Cry.cry.cry. drain the wound. Sending so much love x
I lost my only child in July. You life sounds like a mirror of mine. Keep getting up and your only goal is to make it through the day. Know someone else is dealing with your same pain.
Norma herrera says
Thank you so much…i thought i was going crazy..
Lesli Dumler says
Thank you, Angela for your beautiful words. My 14 year old son died in May after what we thought was a successful heart surgery. He never had symptoms, was never sick, we had just found a structural defect. Still seems so unreal. He was the glue that held our family together and my daughter, who is just 17 months older is struggling, of course. This first Christmas without him is of course brutal, but luckily I do have a village of amazing support. I especially relate to your comment “Normal died the day your child did”. So true. Trying to meet others’ expectations (family mostly) WHILE going through the utter exhaustion of grief is unnecessary. Thank you for helping us take a deep breath and just “be” or “do” whatever we need at any given moment. For some reason, I need permission to be authentic to myself – something that years of “shoulds” have made difficult for me. Please know that your words are amazingly authentic and helpful. God bless you.
Diane Allen says
The holidays have come and gone and spring is on its way. I was compelled to visit this site…I am turned inside out…I am the only one who can hear me, feel my pain, wipe the ever-flowing tears away. Kevin will forever be 29. He spent most of his life with me. Kevin was lucky enough to experience many, many things during his precious life. I was so proud of him when he graduated from Navy Basic Training and his advanced training…oh, so proud! He has three sisters who are each dealing with their brother’s loss in their own way. I hope they can feel some peace in their hearts. I don’t know if that time will every come for me. Love forever Kev!
Terrie Webb says
The pain I feel is no where as ad as my daughter and son-in-law’s, but as the grandmother, I so want to make them better and I can not. Only they can but I’ll be there for them when ever they need me! Thank you for these words. I too will be sure to let them be whatever they need to be now.
We are in the same boat. Our 2 year old Granddaughter passed away 10 months ago today. She was the sunshine of our lives, being our one and only girl and the baby of the family, amongst our 5 Grandsons. This has been the most difficult thing any of us have ever experienced. My daughter and her husband and sons are totally devastated (as we all are) and I don’t know what to do to help them!
God help u Nikki ,xxx
Or pray to not wake in the morning and when you do , wear your mask, get through the day, knowing that even God doesn’t want you
Angela, every word hit home with me. I lost my son January 2015, he was 20yrs old. I don’t recall much of last year, felt numb and robotic, but I have 2 other boys that needed something normal. I didn’t decorate or get a tree, I did try to make our traditional dinner. My son was my sidekick, we did everything together. When he moved out, he moved to another state. That was very difficult for me, but he visited often. I still cry everyday and I know it annoys some friends and family. I try not to let my youngest see me in that state, but he does and just hugs me. I don’t look at the future, I just take one day at a time, that’s all I can give right now. I feel myself comparing my youngest son (17yrs old) to my deceased son. Not out loud, but in how they help me. I know it’s not right, I love all my boys. Is that unatural? I related to your words of how a huge piece of me is missing. I feel like a huge part of me died. I changed that day and alot of people don’t understand. I’m told “time heals all wounds,” or “one day you won’t feel the loss,” this angers me. One of my siblings who lost a child herself has told me I am responsible for my son’s death. I feel enough guilt and those worse just tortured my pain even more. Christmas is around the corner and I’m still debating on decorating or getting a tree. I know I will break down in tears and I don’t want my sons to feel bad or sad.
Peace Redefined says
Excellent article. Especially love the advice of #4, but all are great. “spread hope and help others” … I have found that the only true source of self-generated joy is in the service of others. And your point is spot on … whatever we can do, even if just a smile to a stranger, buying for the person behind us at the drive-thru, open a door, a kind word, forgiving a wrong … ALL multiplies in this world and honors the love that has departed from our immediate view. I wish everyone reading this as much peace and love as they can permit at this point. Today marks 6 months since our son, our brother, our love, our friend, our inspiration, Thomas departed this world at the young age of 25. We miss him every second, the pain and sorrow are deep and ferocious, arriving uninvited and lingering well beyond any welcome … but the love is greater than the pain.
The love is greater than the pain.
We want to honor our son by celebrating his life this Christmas.
Robbyn Fussnecker says
It will be 9 years November 22 that I lost my son. Joshua was 27 and had 2 beautiful children they are twins and 18 now. I grieve my son every Thanksgiving to the point that at times I literally cannot get out of bed. I have 2 other sons and I just adopted a daughter. They try to make Thanksgiving easy for me but, what they don’t understand is I do not want to even acknowledge that there is a Thanksgiving. It seems the more I try the worse I feel. I love my family and I know they feel like they are helping but, I just want the day to go away.
Thank you, this is an amazing article. Tears of pain, tears of sorrow and tears of thanks are streaming down my face. Not feeling so alone for a short moment means a lot. Thank you. My Abbie passed away May 2010 at 3yrs old from a head injury she received at the babysitters. Missing her everyday
This is our first Christmas without my beautiful son. He was 30 years old and died in a car accident on May 3rd. The only way I can keep going is to remember that he would want me to. He loved Christmas and his family so much! Thank you for your posts…