We had no idea how we were ever going to celebrate Christmas again after our son Zack’s death. For months leading up to the holidays, my stomach was in knots as we struggled with the plans for making it the perfect balance. How could we make it both fun for our other boys, while also recognizing that secretly my husband Paul and I just didn’t want to celebrate at all? It all seemed overwhelming and impossible. The holiday that I had once loved, was now torture in every way. It was all difficult, the Christmas music, trying to shop, special ornaments on the tree, holiday conversations, parties and even the toy stores.
Our family is only one of many who are feeling these emotions as we lead up to the holidays. I know so many families who will be trying to find some way to push through this emotional time after a horrible loss in their family. Whether it’s a grandparent, a spouse, a parent or a child, I want to pass along some ways that helped us survive the holidays and will continue to help us in the years to come.
Here are ways that might help you survive this holiday season after the loss of someone you love:
1. YOU make the decisions on how you celebrate:
It was really hard for the rest of our family, but in 2011 (our first year without Zack), we decided to go away and not celebrate with the painful traditions at home. It was stressful to explain to other family members about our decision, but ultimately WE needed to do what felt right for us. Be sure to put yourself first and decide what will feel better- it might only be a one year change from the usual, but it is up to you.
2. Find a candle lighting or remembrance ceremony to attend:
December 6th is a day when loved ones who have died, are honoured and remembered. The Bereaved Families or Hospice organizations in your region, have amazing resources at this time of year. Not only are there ceremonies to attend, but also specific support groups for loss during the holidays. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone at this difficult time of year. Many churches, funeral homes and cemeteries also do their own unique service to honour those who have died.
3. Continue some of your traditions or make new ones, when you are ready:
Our first year without Zack, we didn’t have a tree, didn’t have a turkey, and did everything OPPOSITE to our regular traditions. In fact, we actually went away for the first time ever. We wanted to escape the memories at home. With each passing year, we have added back some of our older traditions in new ways. One Christmas, we finally felt ready to put up the tree with all those ornaments of Zack’s and to open gifts in our own home on Christmas morning. I even started a new tradition of buying all 3 boys a new ornament each year, a symbol that Zack will always be in our minds and hearts at the holidays.
4. Give gifts of memories:
Our first Christmas without Zack, I gave each of our boys a photo book with amazing memories of each of them with their little brother. It was so incredibly hard to collect the photos and compile this special book, but I loved that I could hand over a book to our kids and help them remember each moment with the brother that they lost. Consider photo books, a special framed photo, ornaments or even jewellery with your loved one’s name or photo on it.
5. Be kind to yourself and let others help:
Take it slowly through the days leading up to Christmas. I can promise you that the days before Christmas are much worse than the actual day itself. I can even say that the second year will get a bit easier. Give yourself time away from the busyness of buying gifts and hosting guests, so that you can just sit back and allow yourself to feel your emotions. Don’t be the one that cooks the turkey, let other family members carry that burden…you have too many burdens of your own.
While it might never be the same Merry Christmas it once was, it can be a new holiday wrapped up in memories of someone very special. Take some time to hold family close and remember the one you lost. That’s exactly what we will be doing again this year.
Heather Hamilton is the mother to three beautiful boys, including her son Zack who died March 10, 2011. She continues to write about her journey through grief, finding inspiration, raising her other two sons and giving back to the community in Zack’s name.