Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ten on the Tenth -- Surviving the Holidays After the Loss of a Child

Yes ... It's the 11th, I know ... Believe it or not, I actually started this post on the 9th, and I just now finished it!

At our While We're Waiting retreat last weekend, there were five couples who had yet to experience a holiday season without one of their precious children (or their only child), so, as you can imagine, this was a major topic of discussion.  My heart broke for these folks, knowing what they are facing in the months ahead.

I remember how I felt in September of 2009.  I did not want to live through the next three months, which included Hannah's 18th birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  I don't mean that I wanted to die (at least, not most of the time) ... I just didn't want to "live" those months.  Somehow, I just wanted to jump straight from September to January.  I just could not see how I was going to make it through those days.

Why are the holidays so incredibly hard for a family who's lost a child?  Several reasons ... Family gatherings magnify the absence of the child, holiday traditions that once brought joy are now fraught with pain and loss, tensions may arise among extended family members as everyone's emotions are raw, and Christmas shopping with one less person on the list is unspeakably painful.  There is a certain expectation of how we are supposed to feel and behave during the holiday season, and when you've lost a child, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to muster up the emotional stamina to play that role.  I can remember feeling like if one more person told me to have a "Happy Thanksgiving" or "Merry Christmas", I was gonna pop 'em in the nose.  Hey, I'm just keeping it real.

So, tonight I'm going to share a few things that we've found have worked for us over the last four years of celebrating the holidays without our girl.  Not that we've got it all figured out, or that we are able to breeze through the holidays now without difficulty.  And just because these things have worked for us, doesn't necessarily mean they'll work for other families.  Most of these things we've figured out through trial and error over the past few years; unfortunately, it seems that each family must go through that process for itself.  But, just maybe something I list here could help someone else with the process.

So, without further ado, here's this month's Ten on the Tenth ... Surviving the Holidays After the Loss of a Child.

1.  This is the one time in the life of your family that it's okay to be "selfish."  Please don't misunderstand me on this ... what I mean is, at this very vulnerable time, it is important to put the needs of your family first.  Extended family can pull you in many different directions, and that may be okay ... you may get a lot of comfort from spending time with extended family.  But you may also need to spend time focusing on just your immediate family, without the hustle and bustle of a large family gathering.  Maybe some of both is what you need.  The important thing is to figure out what will be best for your family, and do it.  Extended family members may or may not understand your needs ... but it's most important to put the needs of your immediately family first.

2.  Communicate!  Husbands and wives and surviving siblings need to talk to each other about what they want to do about the holidays.  We didn't do that on our first Thanksgiving without Hannah ... we just kind of went with the extended family flow without even discussing how we felt about it ... and it was a horrible day.  So before Christmas came around, the three of us spent a lot of time talking about how we were going to handle that day.  We came up with a plan ... and it went much better.

3.  For us, it worked well to follow Bethany's lead that first Christmas.  If it had just been Brad and I, we probably wouldn't have celebrated Christmas at all.  I know we would not have put up a Christmas tree, nor would we have done any decorating.  But we didn't want to take Christmas away from Bethany, so we let her tell us what she wanted to do, and we pretty much did that.  She wanted to keep some things the same, and she wanted to do some things differently.  For example, we had always had an artificial tree, and that year, she decided she wanted us to have a real tree.  And, you know, that helped.  Instead of the drudgery of digging out the box, bending all the branches into shape, and putting that old tree together, the three of us went out, picked out a real tree, brought it home, and put it up.  We also went out and bought a bunch of new ornaments, letting her pick most of them out.  We mixed those in with our older, more sentimental ornaments as we decorated the tree.  It made her happy, which in turn made it more bearable for us.

4.  Realize that extended family members probably do not understand what you're going through.  They want to understand, they're sincerely trying to understand, and they would do anything to make things better for you.  But they can't.  They don't live everyday with that empty bedroom and the empty chair at the supper table.  Their lives have gone on with relatively little change in day-to-day life.  But they love you and they are hurting too.  We can make the holidays easier by lowering our expectations of them, and by extending them grace when they say or do the wrong things.  Because, most likely, they will ... but they can't help it.

5.  Keep the holidays separate.  In our culture today, it seems that we basically celebrate "Hallowsgivingmas" ... running Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all together into one big three-month long observance.  You've seen the Christmas trees up in Walmart before Halloween is over ... We all have!  Ugh!  I've always hated that, but I really started hating it that first holiday season after Hannah went to Heaven.  I could only handle one holiday at a time emotionally.  It took every ounce of my emotional stamina to make it through Thanksgiving ... no way could I even think about Christmas at that point.  I needed time to recover and build my strength back up before I could prepare for Christmas.  I used to like to set the Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving afternoon or at least that weekend.  Not anymore.  I want a very clear division between my holidays, and I know that is a result of that first year without Hannah.

6.  Do something to include your child in your holiday celebration.  That first year, we asked our extended family members on the Sullivan side to write down in a card something they had done that year in Hannah's memory (such as making a donation to a charity, or sharing her story with someone who needed encouragement).  After all the presents had been opened and the Christmas chaos had settled down a bit, that stack of cards was pulled out from under the tree, opened one-by-one, and read aloud by Bethany.  It was a way of including Hannah in our celebration ... almost as if we were giving her presents.  Now, we have two Christmas trees at home, one decorated with our usual ornaments, and one covered with "JOY" ornaments, in memory of Hannah "Our Joy."  All year long, I delight in finding "JOY" items to add to it.  Knowing that we've got that tree to decorate gives me a reason to actually look forward to digging out the Christmas stuff once again.

7.  One of the hardest things about Christmas is having one less person to buy gifts for.  It can be so incredibly painful to walk into the stores and walk past all those things that would make such perfect gifts for your son or daughter who is no longer here.  Well, how about this idea?  Go ahead and buy some of those gifts, then donate them to your church nursery or to an Angel Tree child.  Hang up your child's Christmas stocking and fill it up with small gifts, then put those gifts in an Operation Christmas Child box and have it sent to a child on the other side of the world.  Doing something like this may help ease some of the pain related to the shopping aspect of Christmas.

8.  You can't run away from the pain.  Some families choose to get away for the holidays ... maybe going on a trip to a tropical destination or a heading to the mountains.  And sometimes doing something completely different like that can indeed help.  But just keep in mind that the pain will follow.  We can hide from it, we can run from it, we can pretend to ignore it ... but eventually, we must go through it.  Sometimes facing it head on is the best thing to do.

9.  Be patient with yourself.  You have suffered a terrible, devastating loss, and you are not only affected emotionally by it, you are affected physically, as well.  This is one holiday season when you don't need to feel like you have to "do it all."  I think we women are especially vulnerable to this ... we feel that we have to please everyone ... we have to cook, clean, shop, decorate, wrap, send cards, sing in the Christmas cantata, and keep a smile on our face while we do it all.  Don't do that to yourself.  Simplify.  If you don't have the energy to haul out all those boxes of decorations ... don't.  If you can't muster up the strength to fight the crowds at the grocery store and cook a big dinner ... call a caterer or a local restaurant and have them prepare the holiday meal for you.  Or let someone else in the family take care of all the cooking this year.  If you don't have the stamina to go to all those holiday parties and events ... don't feel like you have to.  Take the time you need for yourself and your family.  And be sure to get adequate rest ... I discovered early on that my grief was much harder to handle when I was fatigued.  And then I was really no good to anybody, especially my family.

10.  Take time to focus on what these holidays are really all about.  Thanksgiving was really tough for me that first year.  I'm so glad that for once, we didn't go around the table and all have to say what we were thankful for.  I'm really not sure I could have come up with anything that first year.  In fact, I probably would've left the table.  Again, I'm just keeping it real.  But, now that I can think more clearly, I can see that, even though my oldest daughter is not here with me, there is still so much to be thankful for ... the years we had with her, the fact that she is eternally healed in Heaven, and the knowledge that I will get to spend eternity with her.  And that's in addition to the day-to-day blessings I receive from my Heavenly Father.  And Christmas!  Christmas is everything!  I mean, where would we be if God had not sent His own Son, knowing full well that He was going to die a horrible, painful death on the cross?  Christmas is the source of all joy ... and the whole reason why we will be reunited with our children again if both we and they have accepted the gift of Jesus Christ.  Remembering that is how we survive Christmas!

I'll leave you with one final word of encouragement.  It gets better.  This will be our fourth holiday season since Hannah went to be with Jesus, and each one has gotten easier.  And I've come to believe that if you consciously apply yourself to seeking out the joy in the season (though it may seem so hard to find at times), God will honor that effort by bringing healing to your life.  These are His holidays, after all, and we honor Him by honoring them.

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