The holidays haven’t been the same since my son died seven years ago. By holidays, I mean Christmas. But every anniversary or celebration is different now. It’s just that Christmas is one of the hardest.
When he was little, I wondered about tiny details: how did they style his hair or what did their Christmas tree look like. Were there piles of presents? Did they wear matching woolen sweaters? I imagined Norman Rockwell-esque scenes staged against a backdrop of hand-strung popcorn garland and neighborhood caroling. A couple of months later an update would arrive with photographs to fill in those details.
But the first winter after he died, I struggled to reconcile the fact that I was a birth mother who’d never spent a holiday with her child and a grieving parent who would never see her child again. I snapped back and forth between lost opportunities and our stolen future. I was angry. I was sad. I was lost. I wanted a way to connect to him but didn’t know how.
I thought about his adoptive family and hoped they were faring better than I was, but then jealousy sidled its ugly nose into the mix, leaving a snotty trail of bitter tears and self-loathing in its wake. They’d had years with him, and I had none.
What could I do? How could I escape the torment in my soul?
I scoured the internet for resources and tools to ease my pain. Some helped, some didn’t, but I used what worked and tucked away the lessons for later use.
Since then, I’ve refined my list and I’d like to share it with you. One grieving parent to another.
It doesn’t matter the reason for your child’s absence: if you’re a birth parent with little or no contact or a grieving parent navigating the new reality that your child will never come home. Nor does it matter if this is your first holiday without your child or your twentieth. If you are grieving, I am sorry. But, maybe, something on my list will help you.
1. Give yourself a break. Grieving takes a mental, physical, and spiritual toll. If you can, find ways to nurture yourself. Take a long bubble bath or a nap or go outside for a walk. If you have other children, and are able to, get a sitter and have some ‘me time.’
2. Take care of your physical health. Eat right, drink lots of water and get enough sleep. But don’t deny yourself small pleasures either. In moderation, a piece of home-made fudge, a glass of eggnog, or a hot toddy can bring a bit of joy to a solemn moment.
3. Don’t let others dictate how you should feel or act. If you don’t want to celebrate or participate in certain activities, let your loved ones know you need a little space and ask for their support.
4. If you are prone to anxiety attacks, have a plan. Call a support person who can remind you to breathe and talk you through to the other side. And spend time with people who understand, avoid those who don’t. You deserve support and understanding.
5. Give yourself permission to indulge in old photos, letters, or videos of your child, and go ahead and cry.
6. Perhaps you aren’t feeling particularly emotional. That’s okay too. There will be times in your grieving cycle when you feel dull and listless, which is perfectly normal.
7. For some, talking about their child is a relief, but for others, it may be too painful. Trust your gut but know that the more you talk about your grief the easier it is to bear.
8. Donate to a charity, or better yet volunteer. The physical act of volunteering takes your mind off your own grief, boosts mental well-being and happiness, and is a meaningful way to honor your child.
9. Journal, paint, write a poem, crochet, play an instrument or sing a song. In essence, find a creative outlet for your swirling, chaotic, beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming emotions.
10. Count your blessings. Begin each day by listing ten things for which you are grateful. Even the smallest things count. Research suggests that just the process of searching for positive aspects produces health benefits and a greater sense of well-being.
I lost my son shortly after reunion before we had a chance to build a relationship, and I still struggle to find peace. These are tangible steps that have helped me navigate Christmas, and maybe they will help you too.
Your heart may be broken, but it will go on beating, even if sometimes you may not want it to. And I know it’s hard, but please know you are not alone.