I’ll be honest, both my husband Lee and I don’t remember the holidays that first year after our son Brannan was born still. It had only been 6 months and we were still in survival mode, but we had a 4-year old daughter to care for and to make the holidays special for. I hope she isn’t scarred for life as she watched her parents walk around in a half-daze and/or crying. Now we’re going into our second holiday season and here is list of things that we are arming ourselves with for our second holiday season without our son.
First of all, it’s all about the expectations. Lower them. Lower what you expect from yourself, what you expect from others, what the holidays are “supposed” to be, and even for what you’re going to do to survive the holidays from this list below. Remember, we’ve just gone through something traumatic—please give yourself some grace and some wiggle room.
Take care of yourself physically
- Eat healthy, nutritious food every day: You don’t have to be a health nut (I enjoy all the treats that pop up this time of the year like everyone else), but try to get more healthy food options in. Grief is hard work and you need the fuel to deal with it all.
- Move your body everyday: Even going for a walk for 10 minutes will do wonders for your emotional state. I personally lift weights, and I am NOT the type of person you’d see and think, “Oh, she must lift weights”. I do it because I have something I like to call “anger-gy” (aka angry energy), and I’ve found that lifting heaving weights helps me channel that “angergy’, so it doesn’t spill over to my personal and professional life.
- Get some sleep: You might be having a difficult time sleeping–I did with so many things racing through my mind, but do the best you can, because your body needs rest. Practice good sleep hygiene. Try to make a bedtime routine. Sneak in a nap if possible. And talk to your doctor if you need additional help.
- Take a shower everyday: And brush your teeth. Just practice good hygiene, because you will be surprised how much better a hot shower and non-fuzzy teeth will make you feel after you’ve been crying all day.
- Relax: What do you like to do to relax, before you lost your baby? Getting a massage? Meditating? Taking a bath? Going on a walk? Listening to music? Reading a book? Whatever it is, get some of that in your life, because your tense shoulders and your aching head probably need it.
- Have a routine: Not a routine of “cry, sleep, cry, sleep”. I’m talking “Set an alarm to get up every single day, take a shower, eat something nutritious, and go for a walk” type of a routine. I wanted everything to be normal and familiar after our son died, but it wasn’t ever going to be “normal” again. A routine gives you some semblance of familiarity in your now “new normal.”
- Avoid drugs and alcohol: Those can be emotion-numbing and you don’t want to not feel. You’re going to get through this if you feel all the feelings—the good and the bad. Brene Brown talks about it a little bit in her TED talk [source] about how when you numb the bad feelings, you also numb the good feelings and aren’t able to truly feel joy.
Take care of yourself mentally
- Go to counseling: Seeing a therapist or counselor can feel vulnerable, like you’re not strong enough and you need help or something. Guess what? You need the help. These trained professionals are equipped with tools and methods to help you navigate and process your grief. One tip: Shop around for a counselor. Not every therapist or counselor will be a good match for you.
- Shopping for the holidays: Navigating the crowds while doing my holiday shopping always stresses me out, so we opted to shop online last year. Know what you can handle and figure out solutions to minimize the frenzy of shopping, whether that be online shopping or grocery pickup.
- Get rid of the guilt: You think that you will disappoint someone this holiday season. You may or you may not if you don’t buy a gift for this person or didn’t have the energy to make neighbor gifts. But that’s okay. When our son passed away, so many things didn’t matter anymore. Let the guilt go and just be okay with where you’re at today.
- Let’s find the silver lining: I’m not telling you to ignore how crummy you may be feeling. I’m asking you to look around and notice things that you do have—the people in your life, the blessings you have been given. Practice an attitude of gratitude. Having a thankful heart helps pull you out of your sadness, even for a few moments.
- Recharge: Are you an introvert? Extrovert? What helps you rest and recharge? Then do it. For me, literal quiet time with no distractions (I’m looking at you, smartphone) does the trick. Others may benefit from time with family or a close friend, reading, or listening to music. Find what fills your energy back up and do that.
- Have a goal: Yup, goals aren’t for January anymore. Having a goal, even a small one, can nurture your mind and soul. Whether it has something to do with your baby (write daily about your child) or not (make a gingerbread Eiffel Tower), that accomplishment is rewarding.
Take care of yourself professionally
- Hire a cleaning service: Some of you reading this may be stay-at-home parents, and may think that you could clean the house yourself. If it’s de-stresser for you, then clean away. If it’s tough to clean most days and you can financially manage it, hire someone to clean your home, even just once during the holiday season. It’s one less thing to do and your home will be clean, and having a clean home creates calmness.
- Talk to your boss: If you are struggling to focus at work or find yourself breaking down crying, talk to your boss as soon as possible. Your employer is generally concerned with your well-being, because when your personal life is going well, it’s usually reflected in your work. Let them know where you’re at and see if you can figure out some tactics to help you deal with your emotions and your work responsibilities. And for you stay-at-home parents, talk to your spouse so you can figure out what you need to do together to care for your other children and home responsibilities. There will be some things that can go by the wayside until you’re all in a better place.
- Connect with co-workers: Sometimes you spend a considerably more amount of time with your co-workers, so try and socialize with them. If it’s appropriate, let them know how you’re doing, because there’s a good chance they want to see how you’re doing, but don’t know how to broach the topic. For you stay-at-home parents, get together with other stay-at-home parents at the park or children’s museum, so your kids can play while you talk and connect. My co-workers were helpful when I needed a break and kind when I wanted to talk about my son.
- Take a break: Take a walk, stretch, breath. Work can be a welcome distraction, but when the stress starts to build up because of deadlines and demands from your employer, remember to take a little time each day to rest. A little stretching or desk yoga will do wonders at keeping the stress at bay. For you stay-at-home parents, it’s going to be hard work to carve in breaks some days, but work to get even 5 minutes for yourself to stretch and breath.
Take care of yourself spiritually
- Connect with a higher power: Find ways to connect to a higher power. That could mean attending church services regularly if you are religious. It could look like daily meditation. It could be personal prayer or private worship.
- Journal: Writing is therapeutic and can serve as wonderful way to process how you are feeling and also to remember your child. You can write about your day, what you’re feeling, or about your child and your experiences through pregnancy and birth. As hard as it may be to write about those experiences, it’s a way of being close to your child.
- Do some service: Helping others, in small or big ways, will get you out of your own head and your own sorrow for even a short time. My husband found out another family almost lost their young mom two days after we lost our son, and his first reaction was to show up on their doorstep with food for them as they watched their mom struggle for her life in the days afterward. The outreach to others helped us realize that we weren’t the only ones with tough days ahead.
- Count (and express) your blessings daily: It might seem like there’s very little to be grateful for after your baby just died, but when you stop and take a look around and acknowledge what you do have—big and small—it can lower depression and increase your resiliency to stress. Take the time every day to notice one thing that you’re grateful for and express it openly or in a gratitude journal.
Take care of yourself socially
- Know it’s okay to change your mind: There are so many family parties and work get-togethers, holiday shows and end of the year recitals, and making gingerbread house making and looking at Christmas lights. So many wonderful things to do, to see, to eat! It’s okay to be wishy-washy while you’re grieving. Let others know what they can expect from you and be honest with where you’re at. If going to that live nativity show is going to leave you in a depression for days, then don’t go. Gauge how you’re feeling and give yourself permission to change your mind if you are not feeling it.
- Get together with extended family and also limit that time together if needed: Okay, so this suggestion can be tricky, because some family situations can be difficult or wonderful or both. They know you and you have history with your family members and that in itself can be comforting. Know yourself and your family and spend the amount of time with them that will be good for your soul.
- Get together with a friend, but choose wisely: There are some friends that will be there for you to listen, to cry, to mourn with you. There are others who are not in a good position to be there for you as you grieve and that’s okay. Be wise when you choose which friend to spend time with, because they could be more draining, than helpful. I have two former college roommates with whom I go to brunch every month or two and I know that we are all ready to listen to and know what’s going on with each other and it fills my cup to be with them.
- Create new traditions: We realized that things were different than we expected that first Christmas after our son died. The “new normal” was becoming more familiar, so we decided to create new Christmas traditions, especially ones that included our son. We have a tradition of hanging a stocking for him and decorating his grave with his own Christmas tree. We ditched other traditions for a time, because they didn’t feel right anymore and we didn’t have energy for them.
- Don’t be just “busy”: It’s okay not to be busy and slow down. You may feel like it’s best to be busy, but if you ignore your feelings or don’t give yourself time to mourn, rest, and recharge, those pent-up feelings will spill over and could result in shortened tempers and hurt feelings.
- Make a list of holiday don’ts: Everyone has their list of things they want to do during the holidays, but have you ever created a list of holiday don’ts before? On my list this year, is not taking our daughter to see Santa and not making our traditional family chocolates. When you intentionally write down those things you aren’t going to do this holiday, you’re giving yourself permission to not have those things weigh on you. All the things you “should” do to make the holidays merry and bright, can be stressful. Yay for less stress!
Take care of yourself emotionally
- Make an intentional list of your holiday dos: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous two tips, but there will be plenty of things that will want your attention. You don’t have to do “all the things”. Be intentional in which activities you do choose. Choose one or two that are meaningful to you, and be okay with catching the other ones next time. Your sanity will thank you!
- Turn off the Christmas music: I love love LOVE Christmas music, but I highly encourage you to turn it off. All the songs of the miraculous birth of Jesus are painful reminders that my baby isn’t here and that is hard. It’s okay to turn it off and have some quiet.
- Log out of social media: Go on a digital vacation in December, because all the beautiful pictures that you might think are “inspiring” you, may be putting more pressure and guilt on you to do more than you can and should. Plus, if your feed is anything like my feed is, you’ll be thankfully missing out on all the baby announcements and “Baby’s 1st Christmas” posts.
- Be honest about your feelings when someone asks: You need to acknowledge to yourself and others when you’re not doing well. Obviously, it depends on the person who is asking, but realize that everything may not (or may) be great. If telling someone that you’re terrible is scary to you, try some softer versions that we use that are also truthful: “I’m okay“, “I’ve had better days”, “It’s been a hard day, but I’m working through it”, and my husband’s favorite “It is what it is.”
- Go to a grief support group: We go to our local chapter of Share Parents every month or two. I am always surprised at the mix of people that attend—we come from all different walks of life, but we have one thing that we have in common and that common loss is comforting and connecting. We are all part of the worst club, and we can talk and cry about our children freely together.
- Do something other than sitting on your phone or binging Netflix: I am guilty of doing both these activities when I feel like I need to “escape”—they feel like good “numbing” activities, right? But your feelings won’t go away and you will likely feel crummier for having spent two hours scrolling through other people’s cheery and festive newsfeeds or spending 6 hours in front of the TV not doing much. I’ll give you a couple of suggestions of what to do instead below.
- Do 1 thing you enjoy and/or are good at every day: What are your hobbies? It may seem like a while since you’ve done any of those things you enjoy. Do one thing you really love to do or you’re good at doing. That could be knitting, baking, playing a video game (not hours’ worth though), working out, playing a board game, spending time with friends, fly tying, taking photos, going to the symphony, writing, catching up on your favorite sports team, drawing, yoga, traveling, and the list goes on. Introduce a little bit of joy by revisiting something you love to do every day.
- Make something with your hands: I was antsy and couldn’t sit still that first holiday season after our son died. I decided to sew this bag for my husband as a Christmas gift. This was quite the feat for me considering I had little sewing experience. Using my hands to make this bag helped me concentrate (and distracted me) for a short time as I worked on it. It was a much-needed break and I felt accomplished that I had created something.
- Make and take the time to grieve and let the tears come if they do: My husband Lee and I were at an appointment with our therapist six months after our son was stillborn, and I realized that I was doing okay, but my husband was not, having had a traumatic experience after our son was born. Her suggestion was for my husband to go out walking or driving alone for an hour, without any distractions, to think about our son and as she put it, “Let the tears come. Allow yourself to cry if you feel like you need to.” Her suggestion to me was to allow him to have the time regularly so he could process what he had gone through. Do the same for yourself. Let the tears come.
These are just a few things that we do to make the Christmas season more peaceful, calming, and sane for our family. What are some of your suggestions for surviving and even enjoying the holidays? Please comment below.