By: Kayla Leibner
The holiday season…
Exciting. Magical. Lovely.
Merry. Relaxing. Jolly. Festive.
Giving. Receiving. Wishful. Sparkly.
These are all typical words used to describe the holiday season. To many, the holidays are exciting, pure and innocent – a time spent showering loved ones with gratitude and gifts. This season is a time set aside for rejoicing together and expressing gratefulness for all of life’s blessings… But maybe your holiday season is influenced by another season – a season of grief.
Unlike the holiday season, which typically begins at the end of October with Halloween and closes with the New Year in January, a season of grief is unending. It is a lifelong journey – a way of life, if you will. A season of grief brings a quite different vocabulary.
Sorrow. Darkness. Emptiness. Loneliness.
Exhaustion. Unending. Shattering.
When you’re grieving, and bringing along this myriad of emotions, the holiday season is different.
It feels different and it looks different. You experience it with an altered outlook on life. If your loss is fresh, that outlook may be tainted with anger, bitterness, and regret. If you’ve been on your grief journey for some time, maybe your view is filled with memories, a bit of sadness or longing, and a desire to make the most of the experiences you have with those you love.
Grief is different for everyone. Just like we are all unique, so is our grief. The way we journey through it is not linear. It doesn’t always make sense, especially during the holidays when everything is so merry and bright. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is much to celebrate when someone is missing from the new memories you’re making. It can feel wrong to be joyful without them.
This dilemma of season overlap is all too familiar to my family. My husband and I have lost two of our children – Melody (in August 2017) and Jamie (in May 2018). We have felt pain to the deepest degree. We have experienced the emptiness and heartache that the death of a child brings. So how do we do it? How do grieving parents deal with all the adverse emotions of our heavy burden during the most wonderful time of the year?
Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple… there is no single answer.
There are so many different things that can be helpful in a bereaved parent’s holiday survival kit. From speaking with fellow angel parents, I’ve learned that the most helpful things to remember are as follows:
Be patient and gentle with yourself.
Allow yourself to feel everything you feel.
Do something in memory or in honor of your child.
Remember you aren’t alone – seek out support.
As a grieving parent it’s important to be patient and forgiving of yourself all the time, but especially during the holidays. When your child dies, your entire life – holidays and all – have been permanently altered. There’s not a portion of your life that doesn’t change. Any expectations you previously had about this joyful time are not going to be helpful. Instead, allow yourself to move slowly through the things you can handle. It’s going to be difficult, but you will survive this.
I found myself trying to mask or chase away my true feelings during my first holiday season as a bereaved parent.
I quickly learned how exhausting this is. Whether you are inclined to “be happy” or “okay” for your loved ones or for yourself, forcing yourself to not feel sad (or any other feeling you may have) is a hinderance to healing. Each feeling you have, positive or negative, is justified. Something terrible has happened, and you’re allowed to feel everything you feel.
One of the feelings you may experience is guilt.
A conversation I had with my mom about this really stuck with me. She told me that after thirty-three years she still battles guilt about my brother, Wade, while shopping for Christmas gifts. I, too, feel this same guilt while shopping for Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, Easter basket items… You name it. I have two other children I should be choosing gifts for, but instead I take flowers to lay on two tiny graves. I asked her, “How have you handled this guilt for all these years?” She told me that she uses that desire to do something for my brother to help someone else in need. Suggestions she made were to donate toys for a child the same age as our angels or put a little extra money in a donation box or bucket in their memory. Nobody has to know why you’re doing it – it can be just between you and your angel – but this is such a wonderful way to honor a child during the holidays! In the past two years, to help myself deal with the guilt of Melody’s and Jamie’s absence is to have a candle for each of them, especially picked out and decorated for them. We light them at family gatherings from the time we arrive until we’re ready to leave. It’s a visible and tactile symbol for our missing loved ones, so we all can remember them together.
As always, when someone endures a personal loss or trauma, it’s so important to have a support system in place.
For me, this came from all around. Family, friends, church family, friends of friends, and fellow support group members were all there for me in so many ways. Knowing that I wasn’t alone and that I was never far from someone who cared deeply for my family and me was so helpful and encouraging. I always knew in my weakest and darkest moments that I had someone to lean on, and that made all the difference in the world.
The key to survival isn’t the same for everyone. Honestly, there isn’t just one key either.
It’s more like a key ring that is used to help us overcome each individual moment, feeling, or situation that may arise during the holidays. There are so many contributors and triggers within the realm of family gatherings and celebrations that, despite the delight and thrill of it all, an emptiness and sadness still lingers (sometimes painfully). For some, staying busy with friends and family is what’s needed. Being surrounded by those who are loving and supportive can really help carry one through a terribly difficult time. For others, staying home may be more helpful. Support and love are always helpful, but sometimes what’s needed is a bit of peace and quiet amidst the chaos and festivities of the holidays.
Sometimes all you can do is breathe, and that’s okay.
Our first holiday season without Melody, our first angel, is still very foggy. She passed away in August and was buried in September. Through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year we pushed through and did what we needed to do to get by. I dreaded most of what the holidays entailed, which was really disappointing, to say the least. I had always looked forward to and loved the holidays in the past. October through December was my favorite time of year. Pre-loss, this time of year brought so much joy and sparkle to my life as I soaked in the loveliness of laugher, hugs, family, the smells and all the food! It brought family closer and made togetherness a priority for all (which I took for granted for so many years).
As we walked the streets on that Halloween night (2017) with Jace and Kiley, seeing all the little ones dressed up (even my own kids) was difficult, knowing I would never make those kinds memories with Melody. Halloween fell two and a half months after Melody’s death and five days past her due date. The ghosts that haunted me that evening were the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” instead of the usual frights of Halloween.
It was then that I learned that the best survival tool I could use for the remainder of that year, whatever unexpected triggers it may hold, would be to prepare and protect myself. We knew there were many hurdles to clear as we worked our way through that first foggy holiday season, which helped us take time to recognize and acknowledge the difficulties that were in store for us. This insight seemed to help us see that we needed to do something unexpected and unconventional during the holiday season…
We needed to lower our expectations.
Lowering expectations during the holidays may seem a little Scrooge-ish, but it can be a necessary coping strategy for those who are automatically expected to celebrate and make merry, even without their child. Usually, this time of year is riddled with perfect homes and perfect meals, well-groomed families that are picture perfect, lovely decorations, and a beautiful, magazine-worthy feast. For parents who are grieving a child, the extra effort and energy it takes to create (or even just partake in) this amazingly magical atmosphere isn’t always available.
My husband and I usually host and provide the Thanksgiving meal for his family, but with the trauma our family had just experienced a few short months before, we were focused on trying to get our minds in a proper place to celebrate Christmas with our living children. Hosting the family meal that year was just not something we felt we could do. I don’t mean to imply that we were ungrateful or that we didn’t recognize the blessings that we had at that time. Rather, I think we were acutely aware of the many things in our life that we had to be thankful for, despite our loss – or possibly even as a result of our loss. Our family was gracious and understanding of our need to “pass” on that particular holiday tradition and supported us in our self-care.
Their compassion for our need was what helped us see that creating and communicating boundaries with loved ones is also essential to the holiday survival kit for grieving parents.
Telling a family member that you’d love to come to the gathering they’re hosting, but also telling them that you’ll let them know that morning if you’re up for it is completely acceptable. Maybe coming for the meal is all you can handle at once, so you decide to leave early instead of participating in a family gift exchange – that’s okay. Let the season be what it is. Nobody should expect anything more from you than what you can do.
Those who are unfamiliar with the journey of child loss don’t always realize that we’re not a broken thing that they need to fix. Do we heal? Yes. Does it become more manageable? Yes. However, when our children are missing from our lives there will always be a bit of brokenness inside us.
We can do the best we can to put all the pieces back together after such a shattering tragedy, but when one or more of the pieces of your family are missing, a bit of the brokenness and longing remains in its place. Can we feel joy? Absolutely. Can we move forward? Indeed, we can, and we do.
This holiday season, allow yourself to survive in the best way for yourself.
Be patient and forgiving of your struggles when others aren’t. Don’t expect 100 percent, because what you have to offer has changed in so many ways. Decline an invitation if necessary. Surround yourself with loved ones who will encourage and support you during a difficult time, who won’t try to fix your grief, but rather will welcome every single feeling you have. Most of all, do something to honor your sweet angel this holiday season. Do something small, something big. Share it with others or do something private. It doesn’t matter what you do, but it will help fill a little bit of the void you feel. May you find peace and love on your journey, and may you still feel a little bit of magic during his holiday season.
About Kayla Leibner
Kayla is a Christian, a wife, a mother, and a preschool teacher. She and her husband, Ben, have been married for five years and live north of St. Louis with two of their children, Jace (12) and Kiley (4). They also carry two of their children in their hearts – Melody, and Jamie. Kayla and her family have deep and strong roots in their faith and have relied heavily on God and His comfort in their journey of loss and grief. Kayla hopes that her writing would be of help, comfort, and encouragement to families who are suffering this same tragic loss.