I was recently invited to speak at a gathering of the local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a bereavement support group open to parents and grandparents who have lost a child. Our topic was coping with the holidays.
As I listened to the introductions of the mothers, dads and grandparents of the group I was awestruck by the deep abiding love they had for their children and the depth of grief that was palpable in the meeting room that had become a sacred space for these broken hearts to gather for support.
The children, who were lovingly described, came in all sizes and ages from infancy to mid-30s. Some had been lost to accidents, while others had suffered terminal illnesses.
I watched silently as one mother, who had lost her tow-headed, teenaged son 14 years ago, gently fielded questions from several who were newly bereaved.
“What are your thoughts on spending the holidays away?” asked one young mom who was obviously dreading the upcoming holiday family gatherings.
This anticipatory anxiety came as no surprise to those who had lost their children years ago. The veteran parent was quick to report that she relied on regular tradition for the sake of her other children that first year after her beloved son had died, but allowed herself to limit the bountiful decorating she once enjoyed.
“I did only what I had to do. I didn’t even send Christmas cards. Do what you feel is right for you,” she offered. “The anticipation is always worse than the day itself.”
Another participant quickly spoke up, telling the group that he and his family traveled to Florida the first two years after his 13-year-old daughter had been killed in an accident. He explained that his wife, children and in-laws all agreed it would be best for all. Due to finances this year, the family would remain home and was apprehensive about the possibilities Christmas day would bring.
“Change something about your traditions,” another veteran mom offered, adding that her family created new traditions along the way that now work not only to inspire joy for those involved but also to memorialize their deceased child in exceptional ways throughout the day.
As I listened to the exchange of anxious inquires and heartfelt suggestions, I realized that experience with loss spoke the gentlest truth to these grieving parents. “It will get easier,” it whispered. “Take care of yourself as you work through your grief and you will find hope in life again. You are not alone.”
These lovely people didn’t need me to explain how to survive the holidays. Each already had in his or her heart the best route to take for their own personal journey through this season without their beloved child. By sharing their fears they gave voice to the overwhelming anticipation that threatened to consume them and gave themselves permission to experience the holidays in a way that best suited their needs.
As the meeting got underway, we spoke of the physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual symptoms of grief that must be addressed in healthy ways as we anticipate the weeks to come. Issues such as fatigue, anxiety, memory loss, the roller coaster of emotions with its peaks and valleys, including loneliness and despair, and the disconcerting faith questions many of us grapple with all have a way a vying for our attention, making it all the more difficult to navigate the already stress-filled holidays.
As we named our fears about the upcoming holidays we shared some survival tips that included planning ahead and finding quiet time to grieve, seeking support, talking about our loved ones with safe others, being gentle with ourselves and allowing ourselves to enjoy activities without guilt.
The discussion shifted to how best to remember our loved ones with activities from simply lighting a candle to creating a memorial ceremony or buying a gift for your loved one and giving it to someone special. One mother spoke of how she placed an empty chair at the holiday table in remembrance of her child, while another said she could not accomplish that in her home as it brought her too much pain.
That hope-filled evening reaffirmed for me that though we are each on our own unique journey of loss, we are never alone. Maintaining hope through the holidays begins in the heart.
For more information on The Compassionate Friends or to locate the local chapter in your area visit www.compassionatefriends.org.
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