Facing the holidays after the loss of a child can feel insurmountable. Coping with Christmas, or any event for that matter where being happy is expected, adds an extra layer of grief. So how do you deal with Christmas without your child? While nothing can stop the pain of grief, setting the right expectations for yourself can lighten its weight.

It was June of 2008 when we lost our youngest son in a car accident. The end of the following July was our first birthday without him. He would have turned fourteen that year. His big sister’s wedding followed in August. Then the prairie winds swept us into fall, and the holidays marched in with little regard to our broken hearts.

To be quite honest, I can barely remember that first Christmas. I do remember how hard it was going into the season, the thought of Christmas without him seemed unbearable.

The anticipation of Christmas, and all the season brings, is extremely painful for a grieving parent. That’s why it’s important to determine how you will approach it, as a couple and as a family.

Dealing with your thoughts

Guarding your mind from wandering down the path of what if is always key to not sinking from grief into deep depression.

You can grieve without despair.

The best way to do this, is to follow Philippians 4:8 (ESV):

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

For a grieving parent, it means focusing on what you do have, not what you lost.

For me, it meant being thankful I was blessed with thirteen years of having my son; I couldn’t dwell on the years and events that were no longer part of our future.

Where memories abound, so too are grief’s triggers. Even good memories can be painful.

Christmas is a time for joy.

It’s expected. What if you’re not happy?

Do you power through it and put on a fake smile?

The short answer is no.

We all have routines and traditions that carry us through our days. When you lose a child, there is a gaping child-sized hole in your life. Each daily routine that once included him or her is a painful reminder of that empty space.

What makes Christmas so hard is that it is laden with memories of what was and remorse for what should be. Understanding this can help you prepare for navigating the season.

It is okay to change traditions – even at Christmas.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2 ESV).

Five ways to cope with grief at Christmas

  1. Consider switching out an event with something that honours the memory of your child.
  2. Give a secret gift to one of your child’s friends.
  3. Donate to a local charity in his or her name.
  4. Buy a special candle and light it.
  5. Spend a quiet day at home.

Surviving your first Christmas is major. You are free to do what feels comfortable to you.

After all, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate Christmas, especially when you are just trying to cope.

Remember, routines and traditions are in place to serve us – we do not serve them. It is all right if you decline invitations.

Throughout history, death and bereavement were given the honour and respect it deserves. Women wore black, sometimes for years. They were not expected to attend parties, social gatherings, nor host them. Sadly, in our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, we’ve lost this tradition.

You might find well-meaning friends and family members want to pull you out of the house to help cheer you up. What most don’t understand, is the time of mourning – even through the holidays – is part of your healing.

You don’t have to accept invitations or go to the office party.

The weight of grief is draining. If you are more tired, want to go to bed earlier, or fall asleep unexpectedly, this is normal. That’s why it’s important not to expect your body to handle the added stress of extra socializing.

It’s okay to avoid crowds and celebrations.

Helping siblings cope

You may be thinking, all of this sounds wonderful, but I still have other children to consider. I can’t ignore Christmas or make my own rules.

You’re right.

Christmas is a very special time of year for children. It seems like their inner calendar revolves around two dates, their birthday and Christmas. Which means, bowing out of school and Christmas plays, recitals are not an option.

Besides, they too have lost. It’s heartbreaking to see them lose Christmas too.

What you can do is scale back your expectations of yourself. So often, we as parents want more for our children than they actually want for themselves. We delight in showering them with good gifts. This year, sit down with your family and have a meeting. Ask what events, traditions, decorations and foods are the most important to each one. Then write down your list.

From here on out, whatever comes up, you can say, we are all booked up. In this way, you can guard your family’s time together and keep what makes your family Christmas wonderful and memorable.

One last thought on coping

In the first years after losing a child, it is so hard not to see the gaping child-sized hole in every family event. It does take effort to allow yourself to see who is actually in front of you. Be intentional, at least for brief periods.

If we focus our minds and hearts only on all we have lost, we lose what we still have. With help from the Holy Spirit, you can turn this special season into a time to step out of the noise and let the peace of God restore your strength and family.

Related resources:

Rhonda Robinson is a content producer for Focus on the Family in the U.S., an award-winning author, mother of nine and grandmother of 34. Rhonda lives with her high school sweetheart in Colorado Springs, where they are trying to adjust to an empty nest.

© 2022 by Focus on the Family. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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