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Handling the Holidays After the Death of a Child

Getty Images / Mansoreh Motamedi

The holidays can feel like the hardest time of the year after the death of a child. Here are some tips to help...

After the death of a child, finding your holiday spirit can feel impossible, especially during the year of the loss. You might not feel like attending the usual gatherings, especially if you have to face pregnant friends or family members with new infants. Reminders of the little one you are missing can be seen and felt nearly everywhere you go. 

There is no “best way” to get through this time of year, you simply have to do whatever is best for you and your family. Some people choose to skip the holidays altogether. Others come up with new traditions. Here are some tips for how to cope with the death of a child during the holiday season.

Know your limits & stick to them
If you’re invited to a gathering or event and you know right off the bat that you’ll feel more stressed by going, then politely decline. You are taking care of yourself by saying “no” to situations that may increase your anxiety and discomfort.

Find an "out"
If you absolutely must go to a gathering, find a quiet place where you can step away if you need some time to yourself. Alternately, plan an excuse in advance for why you need to leave the party early in case you feel overwhelmed, then go with the flow and see how you feel when you get there. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a “code” word or phrase that will alert your companion to your desire to leave.

Share your feelings with others
Give friends and family the opportunity to support you by telling them exactly what you need. Remember that people who have never experienced the loss of a child do not have any idea what you are going through, so help them to be more supportive and understanding by sharing how you feel.

Pick your battles
We all have one of "those" relatives that just won't get it no matter what! When a thoughtless or insensitive comment is made, decide whether you want to educate that person or just nod and move on.

It’s okay if you enjoy yourself
Many parents feel guilty and believe they are disrespecting their child when they realize they are experiencing moments of joy. Moments of happiness do not mean that you didn't love your child or that you have “moved on.” Taking breaks from grieving and living your life ARE a part of a healthy grief process!

New Traditions
For some, their holiday is so changed after the death of a child that any celebration feels incomplete without some way to bring their lost child into the season. Why not try something new this year? This may be the best option for you if you have other children, or family who are depending on you to keep up with the usual customs. If you choose to start something new, let everyone who will be involved know early, especially if your new ideas mean replacing old traditions.

But what's a new holiday tradition look like? The answer is simple: Anything that feels right to you and helps you honor the memory of your child can be a tradition. It’s okay to try something this year, and something else next year. Your needs as a grieving parent can change over time, and you may find yourself wanting something different from year to year.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Pick a special ornament for your child each year. You can have an ornament engraved with your child's name or photo. If there is something in particular that reminds you of your child, hang those items on the tree in honor or him or her. For instance, one parent saw a rainbow shortly after the death of her child and believed that was a “hello” from her. So, every Christmas she finds an ornament featuring a rainbow to add to her tree.

Create a small holiday tree specifically for your child
Add an ornament each year, or have friends and family bring special ornaments to decorate the tree. Pick a theme if you like -- angels, children’s toys, birds, first initial of his or her name, or some other theme special to you. You can make decorating the tree an event, bringing together loved ones to remember your child.

If you or someone in your life is crafty, you can make items that remind you of your child. You can even have your child's blanket or special article of clothing made into a stocking, tree skirt, or soft ornament.

Hang a stocking for your child
Write a letter or note to your child, expressing your love for him or her and tuck it into the stocking. Perform random acts of kindness in your child's memory and write a note about it. Ask friends and family to do the same. Place the notes in the child’s stocking to be opened and read on Christmas day.

Give your baby a special signature
If you send holiday cards, it can be difficult to have your child’s name missing from the signatures. Sign your child’s name with a special designation, like a rubber stamp of an angel, a star, or other symbol. Of course, you can sign his or her name if you prefer.

Light a candle
Whether you keep the candle lit through the season, or just during a family gathering, the flame will be a reminder of the person missing from the festivities. 

Buy a toy or make a donation for needy children
Many charitable organizations (or social services) have the names and ages of children available at the holidays. Try looking for a child who is the same age your child would be. It will give you a chance to buy the kind of presents you might have chosen for your own child. Feel free to include a note that your gift is given in memory of your child.

Meet Our Contributor

Anisa is a graduate of Old Dominion University with a BS in Psychology and a MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She also holds designations as a Licensed Professional Counselor, a National Certified Counselor, and a Certified Grief Counselor. Professional memberships include the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), the American Counselors Association (ACA), Resolve National Infertility Association, and the Perinatal Loss and Infant Death Alliance (PLIDA).

In 2015, Anisa founded Good Mourning Counseling & Consulting, which specializes in work with individuals, couples, and families who experience: miscarriage, stillborn, and infant loss; subsequent pregnancy after a loss; infertility and concerns; post-partum depression, caregiving for loved ones with a dementia; living with a dementia; and anticipatory and complicated grief. Anisa created the Perinatal Loss Alert Program, and is actively conducting research on several perinatal loss topics. GMCC also facilitates perinatal loss and infertility support groups, and provides training on perinatal loss, dementia, grief, and other mental health topics to hospitals, clinics, and others throughout the community.

Are you grieving a loss of a loved one? Find support in one of our private discussion groups.