I did something the other day that most people probably wouldn’t understand. I specifically went into the Christmas aisles at a our local big-box store to test myself. I wanted to see how I would react to seeing all of the Christmas stuff that is now arriving on shelves in force. I wanted to see how badly the vise would constrict around my heart this year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. Perhaps I wanted to begin preparing myself for the onslaught of reminders that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – or, at least, the implications that it should be. For some people, it’s not. You see, this time of year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach is always a tricky time filled with potential landmines for a parent who has lost a child.
The vise doesn’t constrict as much as it once did, but I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that it still does and probably always will. I find that I still have to concentrate on breathing the first time I see a Christmas display. I feel it like a jab right in the heart. I see people already posting online about being so excited that Christmas is coming, that they are already playing Christmas music, that Christmas is the best time of the year for them. For some people, it is. For others – for me – it’s not exactly the Hallmark/Norman Rockwell Christmas or Thanksgiving any more. I feel like it used to be that way, and I had so much fun planning the Thanksgiving menu and couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive. Oh, the traditions, the food, the conspiring on what special present to buy, the music, the lights. I loved it all!! I could barely function that first Thanksgiving. That first Christmas was torture. The second wasn’t much better.
I have to admit I still feel like I trudge through part of it at times – not all, but part of it – because I don’t feel the unabashed wonder and enthusiasm that I used to. It’s hard to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas (or even most holidays) without acutely feeling Jason’s absence. What I try to do now is to focus on making Christmas special and meaningful in some way for those I love. But, it’s still a tricky time for me, and I sometimes really have to concentrate on focusing on the positives while being aware of the holes in my life and sidestepping the landmines that are inherent with the holiday territory.
As the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons approach, I’d like to offer an early reminder. If you are a bereaved parent, I hope you will take time to be gentle with yourself. I hope those around you take time to be thoughtful, kind, generous, and gentle with you. You don’t have to do it all. Do what you can and let the rest go. Try to remove as much pressure on yourself as you can. You don’t have to do everything you used to do. You may want to keep some traditions and/or start some new ones. It’s okay. Do what feels right to you for your family and whatever you feel honors the child you lost.
For those who know a bereaved parent, perhaps you could start thinking now about how to do something kind and thoughtful for that parent that may take a bit of sting out of the season. You can’t “make it better,” but you CAN do something. Perhaps you could send a note, telling of a special memory you have of their child. A parent never gets tired of hearing that his/her child is not forgotten or hearing a story that brings a memory to life. Perhaps you could include the bereaved family or a sibling in something. They may say no, so don’t take it personally. But they may need something to look forward to and say yes. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, assuming everyone else captures the same joy at Christmas, and forgetting that there are those who really struggle with loss and its aftermath during this time of year. It’s easy to assume that everyone else is enjoying the holiday season as much as you are. Even after eleven years, I still struggle with the approaching holidays and still feel at times that I’m on the outside looking in at everyone else’s joy and enthusiasm. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the holidays. It’s just that they aren’t quite the same for me any more.
I’ve written before about Christmases after Jason died: A Bereaved Parent’s Christmas; My Christmas Wish for Bereaved Parents; Christmas Day; Christmas Season – Not the “Same as Always” This Year; Caution! Rough Sea Ahead!. Here is an entry from my journal dated 12/25/2003:
It’s Christmas Day. It’s sort of been a mixed bag. I have had such a hard time getting anything done to get ready for Christmas. Doing things to get ready for Christmas meant that I had to focus on another holiday without Jason. How can we celebrate when Jason is gone? I have been trying so hard to figure out how to keep Christmas special for the rest of us without it seeming wrong to celebrate when Jason isn’t here to celebrate with us. It’s just not easy. When I went into stores to look for presents, my heart just felt like it was being crushed or squeezed by a vise. I couldn’t breathe. I would feel panic-y and have to leave before I got anything. It’s so hard to do the things we used to do. It’s just not the same.
No more all going out together on a Christmas-tree-finding adventure. How can it be the same to find and decorate a tree without our boy? Jason was the one who put the angel on top of the tree. We’d bring the tree home, put on some Christmas music, and then all decorate the tree together. I’d unwrap the ornaments and everyone would put their own ornaments on the tree. We’d put up the stockings by the fireplace. Our stockings would eventually be filled with fun stocking stuffers we had bought each other. Such a fun, festive, family time.
It’s been so hard to figure out what to do with the stockings. What do we do with the stockings now? Do we hang them up? Do we put things into the stockings for each other? How do we fill four out of five stockings? Jason’s would look so empty. We can’t not put his up. Every decision seems to have so much emotion tied to it. Everything seems to emphasize Jason’s absence.
It’s been such a hard Christmas. I tried so hard to get in the “Christmas spirit,” whatever that is any more, but I don’t think I ever succeeded. I really tried, but just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm.
On Christmas Eve, Joe, Jenna and I went out to dinner. We honestly were all trying our best to put on our happy faces and have a good time, but we just seemed like a sad little group, I’m afraid. It just wasn’t the same. We all used to go out to dinner for Asian food and then to the candlelight church service. We’d talk and laugh and have the grandest time, full of joy at being together and anticipation of Christmas morning surprises. It was part of our Christmas tradition. Now what do we do?
We came home after dinner and watched Miracle on 34th Street. Both Jenna and I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of it. When we went to bed, tears just started flowing. I couldn’t keep up the pretense any more. I am just so sad.
I got up really early this morning to make cinnamon rolls, just as I used to do. I just wanted to cry the whole time. Do we try to keep traditions we used to have or what do we do? It’s just so hard to carry on with things we used to do. It hurts so much. I don’t know what the balance is. Both Joe and Jenna came down as I was mixing up the dough. I guess they couldn’t sleep, either. After I got the dough made to rise, we went back to bed. I realized that Joe was crying. I asked him if he was okay, and he said he was just so sad. We just held each other and cried.
The day improved once Eric arrived to eat cinnamon rolls with us and open presents. Later in the day, [our friends and their family] came over to have Christmas Day dinner with us and we had a good time together. We played games and went to see a movie. Don’t know what we would have done without them. I’m afraid it would have been a long day.
I don’t know. It seems at times we just go through the motions, but it doesn’t seem to have the same “heart” as it used to. How can we? Our hearts are broken. A huge part of our family is gone. Nothing is the same.
© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney
I was feeling all of this so much today with all of the houses decorated for Halloween, a holiday that we all used to love so much. I have already decided not to get a pumpkin and decorate…it just reminds me of all that I used to have that is now gone.
And when I was shopping I ran into some friends (our sons were friends growing up). They asked if we would travel to visit my daughter for Thanksgiving, but I explained that my husband and I would be home alone this year (we have no relatives closer than a 10 hour drive away). My friends kindly invited us to join them for Thanksgiving dinner, but I am torn as to whether to accept. This will only be the second Thanksgiving without my son and although I really appreciate the invitation, it is so difficult to watch a happy family when frankly, my husband and I are just so terribly sad inside. I guess we’ll figure out what to do closer to the holiday. What do you think?
Well, you can always test the water and try if you want to. Only if you want to. Don’t force yourself or feel obligated. If you decide to go, just be honest with your friends from the beginning that it may be a difficult day for you, that you may need to leave if it gets too difficult, that it’s no reflection on them if you leave. I’m sure they will understand. It may turn out better than you think. If it doesn’t, at least you tried. Sometimes the anticipation of the holiday is worse than the holiday itself.
Great advice Rebecca.
Reblogged this on A Friend on the Walk and commented:
I’m very grateful for this post. Hearing that other parents still struggle even though their child died a while ago helps me realize I’m not alone in this pain in spite of how lonely it feels. It also motivates me to want to move towards others who are hurting. We can have joy alongside our sorrow… The holiday season isn’t all hard. But it’s different now. And it is what it is. There’s no sense in putting on a mask. I will laugh, I will cry, I will pray, rejoice and be angry too. It’s just life now.
This year will be different for sure. Last year we left the country in hopes of escaping. This year our financial situation is not allowing us that luxury. I’m not particularly excited about bringing down boxes from the Attic with all those memories but will find a way to get thru it for my youngest son. I wish my family could read this and realize things but they choose to ignore it and hope we don’t “cave” emotionally. The 26th of December is the day that I give a long sigh of relief that it’s over for another year.
I am giving Christmas a miss this year. I cannot bear the thought of celebrating Christmas without my child. I have ordered “dog tags” with Vic’s fingerprint on it for the boys. I will give it to them as their Christmas gift. I have my first birthday without Vic to face too.
One day at a time…hugs…
Sending a big hug, Rebecca, and a little prayer, too, for you and for those who have replied above. Thanks for reminding me to reach out to some of my friends who are feeing that painful loss. I liked the idea of sending a note with a particular memory. I can see how the holidays would trigger a whole boatload of emotions for the entire family and it’s got to be exhausting to hold it all together. ox
“Holding it all together” – I remember writing once about how my heart felt like it was held together with so much wire that it didn’t even look like a heart any more, just trying to hold it all together.. I’m afraid there are more bereaved parents that either go into hiding to avoid the holiday altogether or put on a good face while hiding behind a mask. Yes, it’s exhausting, especially in the early years.
You say it so well. My son has been gone for 4 1/2 years and still our family traditions are painful. I want to give hope to parents who are in the beginning of their grief and all I can really say is that now the pain comes in waves…not constant as it used to be. The past few days have been torturous because the season is upon us….the season of emptiness and yet, I still have two daughters, 4 grands, a husband…..but the hole left in the fabric of our family is incomprehensible to me. I have started new traditions albeit sad ones in memory of our son. The one thing that we do know is that our children are never gone from us…always in our hearts and minds….probably more so than ever. I wish for you and your family the peace that only God can give…that transcends all understanding. Blessings…..
Thank you for writing.
Thank you for your inspiring words. I too am a grieving mother. Both of my sons were killed in a car accident, also in March of 2002. I was reading your reply to Kay Windsor’s post on our Farther Along blog and thought I would go to your blog. After reading a few of your stories I can tell we have kindred hearts. I just told my hairdresser that when I have days and days of my pity-party it helps me to do random acts of kindness for others. But ‘it’is still always there–that shroud of grief. I wish that no parent ever had to feel that…thanks again for sharing your heart.
Thank you for visiting my blog. I read your Farther Along blog regularly. I am so sorry for your loss. I, too, wish no parent ever had to walk this walk.
Thank you for writing this. My son was killed in an accident 3 weeks before Christmas, it is almost two years ago now. He had just returned to college after spending Thanksgiving at home with us, and the accident happened a few days later. The last two Christmases have been awful, and I am dreading going through it again. To me, this time of year no longer means happy family times together. It just means that the anniversary of the worst day of my life is approaching once again.
Oh, Linda. My heart hurts for you. I’m so sorry…
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