Do you wish that Christmas would just go away this year, or that you could hibernate until it’s all over?

When our child has died the thought of celebrations and family times can be very daunting, as we feel robbed of the ability to find enjoyment in such occasions.

The gap that is left in our family seems huge. We have no idea what to expect or how to face the first Christmas, and even in subsequent years we can still feel ill-equipped to deal with it. And for those who expected to celebrate Christmas Day with a newborn baby son or daughter, the emptiness is a stark and painful difference to the excitement, noise and fun that we hoped the day would hold.

When we asked some bereaved parents for their ideas about how best to cope with Christmas they came up with this helpful list of things to avoid, include and change.

Five things to avoid:
  • Don’t try to do things exactly as you did them before, as though nothing has happened.
  • Don’t change everything. If you do, any surviving children will not only have lost their sibling but their family traditions as well.
  • Don’t feel that you need to write Christmas cards. If you don’t want to send them this year, you don’t have to. You can reintroduce them in the future if you want to, perhaps adding a kiss from each family member, including your child who has died.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself or allow others to. There is no ‘ought to’. Do what is right for you and your family at the time.
  • Try not to listen to the hype about Christmas that comes from outside – shops, adverts, magazines, etc. Try instead to concentrate on what Christmas really means to you.
Five things to include:
  • Choose a special item such as a Christmas decoration or a candle to acknowledge your child.
  • Encourage memories of your child by having their photo or one of their favourite toys visible.
  • Create new Christmas family traditions that in time will be positive memories to look back on.
  • Allow time to cry but also time to laugh as you remember funny incidents from the past.
  • Talk with the family about how they’d like to remember the child who has died, and do your best to add in an idea from each person, however small.
Five things you could change:
  • Have a different type of Christmas meal, eat at a different time, or change the seating arrangements.
  • Open presents at a different time or in a different order.
  • Break the day into smaller chunks – for example, going for a walk, time at home, short visits to friends or family, popping out for a drink – so that you aren’t in the house all day with the pain of your loss.
  • If being at home seems too difficult, ask good friends or family if you can spend the day with them. Being with people you feel safe with, who will allow you to cry, laugh or just ‘be’ is invaluable.
  • Realise that since things change over the years anyway, you could abandon ‘traditional’ routines totally and do something different; for example, go out for a walk and a picnic.

Harry and Angela found buying presents a minefield: ‘We sponsored a cow the first year, wondering what Mark would have liked and laughing because he always asked for something expensive!’

Joy found herself on her own one year as other family members were working, so she tried to just treat it as any other day and watched some TV and skyped her sister.

Sandra lost two babies and on their birthdays tries to give them individual time but at Christmas finds it hard as she misses them both at the same time. She finds it helpful to keep busy and has two glass tree decorations with the girls’ names engraved on them to acknowledge them as a part of the family.

Harry is now able to smile at some past Christmas memories: ‘I remember going to our local railway station with Mark to put back a station sign he had placed in our garden after a particularly ‘good’ night out he had partaken in with his friends!’

Neil and Sally chose an ‘alternative’ Christmas, helping at a Crisis Centre on Christmas Day and Boxing Day: ‘It was certainly the best thing we could have done, making us feel useful but also helping us. We were exhausted, but it was worth it, and we still got to see both sides of our family in the evenings.’

So Christmas will come – and it will go again. We may make some mistakes and will know what to avoid another year. However, hopefully we will find space for memories and to be thankful for our precious children, no matter how brief their time with us. And we will value those who we do spend time with, knowing that life and relationships are really precious gifts.

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