Hopeful Holidays – Balancing Joy and Grief
First Annual Circle of Hope event, August 2015
Images provided by Heartstrings®, Inc.
The holidays are considered to be a time of excitement and joyful celebration. But for families whose lives have changed through loss, it can be a series of anxious days, tearful thoughts and shadowed hope.
At any time of the year, the death of a child is a traumatic loss that alters everything in life for a parent. Nothing looks the same, you feel uncomfortable in your own skin and you wonder how life continues on around you. When the holidays come into view, grieving parents are faced with the challenge of how to navigate a time of year that is traditionally focused on family togetherness. Where are the blaring television commercials advertising how to survive the holidays without your loved one?
For parents who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy, infant or child, the holiday season can feel physically, emotionally and mentally overwhelming. The world around you encourages participation in joy of the season, but you are surrounded by sights, sounds and smells that spark memories of your loved one. At holiday time, grieving parents are faced with the question: Is it possible to grieve and celebrate at the same time?
Heartstrings®, Inc., will explore this concept in depth at its next Living with Hope Speaker Series, entitled “Hopeful Holidays – Balancing Joy and Grief” tonight, Tuesday, November 17 in Winston-Salem. Registration is requested and there is no cost to attend this essential discussion from 6–7:30 p.m. Please call Heartstrings at 336-335-9931 to register.
Attending our Living with Hope session will provide interaction with other parents of loss, as well as time to ask specific questions of our presenter, Dei Angel, MA, LPC NCC. Although no simple guidelines exist that will remove the intense pain of losing a child, the following may serve as a roadmap to help parents better cope with their grief during a time of year that is joyous, as well as painful.
Share Your Story
Although most parents receive genuine support from family and friends following the loss of a pregnancy, infant or child, after time passes some parents find that outreach and validation from others decreases. It can be helpful to identify caring people in your life who understand and support you and where you are along your grief journey, especially during the holidays.
Losing a child can be very isolating and lonely. Sharing your story can help to reduce this isolation. Retelling your story of love and loss, especially to those you trust, is an important way to express and process what you are feeling. Each time you share your story it may feel different, which reflects the grief work you are doing. As the holidays approach, spend time with those who realize your sense of loss is greater this time of year and who will listen without judgment when you need to talk about your child and what it is like without him or her this holiday.
Explore Your Grief Reactions
It was once thought that grief progressed in stages with a different emotion distinguishing each stage from the next. Today, grief is better understood as a complex process that is unique for each person. Even for mothers and fathers who have lost the same child, their grief reactions will naturally appear unique, as men and women express their grief differently.
Following the death of a child, grieving parents experience numerous cognitive, physical and emotional changes (difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle pain, feelings of anxiety, resentment, or depression). Take time to recognize the changes and reactions you are experiencing. Make a list by doing a head-to-toe body scan. Ask yourself: Do I have pain or tightness behind my eyes? Is my jaw tight? Are my neck or shoulder muscles tense? Move down through your body noticing other physical changes and write down your findings. Likewise, take note of your emotional and cognitive reactions as well.
Having this information written down serves as an indication of the grief reactions you are experiencing as the holidays approach. It also allows you to track increasing or decreasing symptoms that you could share with your counselor or doctor. Acknowledge the impact of your loss in your life and take active steps to manage the intensity of these reactions. The following strategies might help.
Self-Care Strategies for the Holidays
Although it may feel difficult to tend to your own needs at this time, focusing on the basics can help keep you healthy and resilient during the holidays.
Fuel up on healthy, energy sustaining foods – choose water or unsweetened iced tea to wet your whistle. Reduce sugar intake with more vegetables (carrots, broccoli), protein (almonds, sunflower seeds) and legumes (edamame, lentils).
Get enough rest – grief is emotionally draining and the holidays can demand even more from you. Finding it difficult to fall asleep, take a warm bath, play relaxing music or place a lavender scented cotton ball inside your pillow case to take advantage of this herb’s relaxing qualities.
Engage in physical activity – being active can help decrease stress and other grief symptoms. Take a walk at a nearby park, climb the stairs, do yoga, or park at the farthest end of the lot.
Journal – whether handwritten or on your laptop or iPhone, journaling provides a private space to express your thoughts and feelings. Also consider expressing your emotions as a sketches or paintings.
Avoid making major decisions alone – following the death of a child, many decisions are necessary. Consider engaging close family or friends to support you in making such choices.
Remember and Honor Your Child at the Holidays
When someone we love dies our memories of them become a gift. Remember and honor your child by including his or her name in your holiday conversations. Invite family members and friends to share what they remember about your child from past holiday celebrations. This may develop into a new holiday tradition as a way to honor the love and lives of those who have passed away.
Give your family permission to create new traditions that are more realistic and comforting. Consider new traditions such as making a special ornament every year. Or perhaps your family donates a toy to a needy child or money to a special cause in your son or daughter’s memory.
Connect with Others
While each bereaved parent’s loss and grief experience is unique, it can be helpful to connect with other grieving moms and dads. You may have already established connections with other parents who have lost a pregnancy, infant or child. Strong bonds can develop with those who mutually understand, validate and support your loss, carrying you forward in your healing.
As you and your family navigate this holiday season, remember it does not have to be perfect. It will look and feel very different because your loved one is not there with you. Take time to grieve, take time to find joy and take time to honor the life and love of your precious child.
Look Beyond the Holidays
Spending time planning for what comes after the holidays may help parents identify ways to continue their healing and plan for how to remember their child at other times during the year. Attending annual community events that honor and remember the life of your child and participating in a peer-based support group can be essential in connecting you with other parents who understand your loss, furthering your healing and creating a legacy for your child.
Heartstrings, a local non-profit, offers programs and services specific to parents of child loss. We will host our Second Annual Circle of Hope event in August 2016, at Triad Park in Kernersville. Circle of Hope enables bereaved families to honor the spirit and celebrate the lives of their children, to join with others impacted by their deaths, and to connect with other families.
Heartstrings also offers peer-based support groups connecting parents for grief support, bereavement education and encouragement following the loss of a pregnancy, infant or child. Our Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support group is open to parents who have had a loss from conception to one year of age. These 8-session support groups are hosted in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and Kernersville, throughout each year.
Our Child Loss Support Groups are open to parents who have lost a child aged 1 – 23, due to any cause of loss. These 9-session support groups meet at Heartstrings’ Kernersville location and focus on developing a base of peer support, exploring grief reactions and self-care, as well as honoring the life of each child.
For more information about Heartstrings’ programs and services, please contact Cheri Timmons, Director of Support Services: 336-335-9931 or firstname.lastname@example.org You may also visit our website at heartstringssupport.org.