Besides birthdays and death anniversaries, the next hardest time of the year for grieving parents and people alike is during the holidays. I’m going to share a story about my first Christmas without my son, and the lessons I learned. This is for you if you are grieving or know someone grieving that you want to support.
What made the holidays so difficult for me was knowing that my son wouldn’t be part of the traditions we had. Specifically, there would be no first Thanksgiving, and no first Christmas. We actually didn’t have any first holidays with James unless you count Labor Day. Whether you were able to celebrate several holidays with your child or none, the holidays are still hard.
It was Christmas day, December 25, 2018, two months and two weeks after James died. Looking back, it had also been the time where James had been dead for as long as he was alive, which is a very weird feeling. The day before, my daughter, Abigail, had gotten sick, so I stayed home with her while my husband went to his side of the family to celebrate.
By the next day Abigail was feeling better, but we didn’t want to bring her to a large family gathering if she was still contagious. On Christmas we had always gone to my mom’s side of the family. I grew up close to my aunts, uncles, and cousins so even though it was my extended family and not immediate family, this was something I had done all of my life.
I wanted to stay home with my husband and daughter. I just felt like I didn’t want to leave. Part of me wanted to go so I could see all my cousins that I grew up with that had all moved away. I felt an obligation to go. I also thought, “What if everyone pulled together and got us a gift because of James dying just two months ago?” I had good reason to think this. Two years prior my sister’s son had died, and everyone chipped in together so my sister’s family could buy a tree to remember their son by, and they had given my family a pot of indoor plants for James. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise if something like this was going to happen, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Even in my grief, I was still a people pleaser.
I reluctantly left my husband and daughter at home.
I put on a happy face when I got there, and it was great to see everyone. Most of my family asked where Jarrod and Abigail were. No one asked how I was doing. I almost felt like I was watching everyone around me enjoy themselves, but that I wasn’t actually there. I was in a fog the whole time missing my entire family, Jarrod, Abigail, and James. We ate, did a few gifts for the kids, and nothing else. I don’t remember anyone saying James’ name, and I didn’t get any special gift from the family. I left early, but felt like I couldn’t leave soon enough to get back to my family.
I spent Christmas day without the three most important people to me by my side.
I know this is sad to read, and it’s sad to think about and write about two years later, but there were so many valuable lessons I learned from this experience.
- Check your expectations: No one misses your child as much as you do, AND you shouldn’t expect them to. Just because I was sad didn’t mean everyone else needed to be sad, too.
- Communicate: If you have expectations, communicate them with someone. I could’ve confided in my mom, told her how I was feeling, and asked if there was something happening for James.
- Release Obligations: When your child dies, all obligations are null and void. Reflecting back, the only real reason I went was because I felt like I needed to go. I felt like I was going to disappoint someone if I didn’t go. Yes, some people might’ve been disappointed, but I ended up being the one disappointed. Ever since then, my family has never gone to a bigger family event out of obligation.
- Forgive: Most people don’t know what to say or do when someone close to them has lost a child. When they say nothing we get upset, and when they say the wrong thing we also get upset. It’s okay to be angry about it, but don’t hold onto it.
I love my entire family and I love the big get-togethers. I’m not holding onto the hurt because the only person that hurts is me. I would also like to note that the plant my family got us is still going strong and is a reminder of James every single day.
If you are a support person, one of the best things you can do is say, “I’m sorry your child isn’t here. I’m here for you if you want to sit somewhere with someone.” And use the child’s name. Whether you bring it up or not, we are thinking about and missing our child.
I hope this guides you to more peace & joy this holiday season.