Christmas means different things for different people – a religious and cultural celebration, an eagerly awaited break from the daily grind of work, seasonal feasts or just Santa Claus and presents. The common element we all share, however, is the notion that Christmas is all about spending time with family, friends and loved ones.

But how do you cope if you’ve lost a child who has always been a part of this annual celebration?

The Christmas/New Year season is often the hardest part of the year for grieving families. It can be tricky to celebrate as it’s the time that loved ones who have died are missed the most. Holidays can really bring loss into focus, which makes the sadness and loneliness feel deeper and more difficult to manage. Love for a child does not just end because they are no longer with you.

It’s OK to hold on to your grief during the holiday season

Author and world renowned expert on healing and loss, David Kessler explains it’s not the grief you want to avoid, it’s the pain: “Grief and grieving are the way out of pain. Grief is an internal feeling and mourning is its external expression.”

Kessler says it’s important to give your feelings a time, a purpose and a place. For example:

  • Offer a prayer or take a moment before Christmas lunch or dinner to hold your child purposively in your thoughts. Say their name out loud or set their place at the table as a recognition that they remain present.
  • Light a candle for your absent loved one.
  • Share a favourite story, a treasured memory or say what you had hoped the occasion would look like if your child was present.

He recommends also having a festive season back-up plan that you can revert to if a get-together with family and friends doesn’t feel right for you on the day. This could involve retreating home, watching a movie or just spending quiet time looking through photos, or possibly visiting a special place. Even if you don’t use your plan B, you might find comfort knowing that it’s ready if needed.

Remember there is no right or wrong way to navigate these events and you can decide what is right for you and your family, even if you change your mind a few times.

A few things to remember (from those in the know)

It can be helpful and healing to speak to other grieving families to find out what has helped them navigate Christmas and other special occasions in the past. They may also help acknowledge the additional pain of mourning your child when so many around you are celebrating. Here are some dos, don’ts and other tips shared by the community of grieving families supported by the Children’s Health Queensland Bereavement Service.

  • Don’t try to do too much and allow yourself some quiet time.
  • Do take care of yourself – walks, exercise, sleep, journaling, massage.
  • If you have a partner and younger children who may not understand the difficulty of celebrating the holiday season, particularly Christmas Day, take turns to ‘celebrate’ and ‘withdraw to recover’ throughout the day.
  • Do accept at least one invitation but create an ‘escape plan’ such as a code word to use when you have had enough.
  • Do accept offers of help or delegate tasks.
  • Include your other children in conversations and planning.
  • Do allow yourself some time to be sad and let that be OK.
  • Work through one holiday at a time.
  • Do let those around you know that this time of year is tough – if talking is too hard try email or Facebook, or ask a trusted friend to pass on what it is you need at this time.

Remember, Christmas and New Year are some of the roughest terrain to be navigated after the loss of a much-loved child. The ways to experience these occasions are as individual as you are. What’s most important is to just be present for the loss, in whatever form it may take over the festive season.

Traditions will change – just like you have

It’s normal to feel as though you and your family might never be able to enjoy these special occasions ever again. Don’t fear this new reality or let it overwhelm you but acknowledge it and try to focus on how you will carry your cherished memories forward with you and make new traditions. As Kessler notes, Christmas and other important dates will “certainly never be the same as before your loved one’s death. However, in time, most people are able to find meaning again in the traditions as a new form of the holiday spirit grows inside of them.”

Whatever you experience at this time of year, recognize that sadness is allowed because death and grief doesn’t take a holiday.

Children’s Health Queensland Bereavement Service offers connections, guidance, information and resources for bereaved family members, their community of support and professionals who care for them.

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