Updated: Jan 10, 2020
This is not a season of joy for everyone. Let's just start there. The focus on family, on togetherness, emphasizes for some where they come up short. When we gather as a family, to be a family, to identify as family, I feel more aware of the family who is not present anymore, of the family we were and will never be again. My heart aches for the holes that Christmas cannot fill and only reminds me of. The very aspects of this season that delight you cause me more pain. I don't know when, if ever, that will change.
I'm not the only one experiencing Christmas this way. While this is a time of merrymaking and celebration for most, it's important to remember those who find such exuberance intolerable still, whose raw, exposed nerves feel the holidays like road rash. It's important to switch emphasis from fun to compassion. Fun is out of reach for some who are grieving. It's hard to have fun when you are in agonizing pain.
How you give to a bereaved person should be different as well, because the bereaved have different needs, a different set of priorities. Aching hearts don't know what to do with the emptiness of material possessions. Empty arms seek meaning and purpose to go on, not stuff to fill them. A family who has lost a child would write a very different Christmas list than one who hasn't.
Based on my own experience two holiday seasons in, and the things I've heard other grieving parents express, these are my suggestions for what to give a broken heart at Christmas.
The Gift of Their Child
You can never give a grieving parent what they want most. But you can give them the memories you hold of their precious child through stories and photographs and videos. You can give them their child's name on an ornament, or a t-shirt, or simply with your voice. You have no idea how much they desire to hear and speak and read and write that name. You can give them framed photos, and photo books, and photo ornaments, and photo anything with their child's face printed on it. You can give them anything that reminds you or them of their child—maybe something their child liked or used while they were alive, a favorite food, or animal, or color. It's not about the thing, it's about the gift of helping them anchor their child's presence in this world. It's about helping them hold onto a memory they cannot breathe without. It's about saying, I remember. I understand. They are not forgotten.
The Gift of No Expectations
One of the most loving gifts you can give anyone who is grieving is the gift of letting them off the hook. Maybe they don't make it to your holiday party. Maybe they don't manage to buy you a present or cook a homemade dessert for the dinner or wear something other than yoga pants. Maybe they don't put up their lights or trim a tree or even rake the yard. Give them a break. Their life is fraught with emotional complications the likes of which you can't even register. Or better yet, offer to help. Show up and put the lights on the house for them. Do some of their Christmas shopping so they don't have to face the maze of triggers retail stores at the holidays hold for them. Save them the panic attack, the three-days-in-bed setback, the humiliating crying jag in public.
The Gift of Listening
The same way your heart swells at getting to see your kids, our hearts long to be reunited with our kids. One of the worst side effects of child loss is that we not only don't get to see or touch or hear our children anymore, but we often feel forbidden to talk about or even acknowledge them. I wish I had a dollar for every awkward silence I had to endure when I mention Evelyn's name, for the way people rush me or cut me off if I talk about her or my experience mourning her. I crave the experience of having someone ask me about her, of giving me permission to talk about her and what grieving her feels like. That is my connection to her—my love, my loss. It is in those moments that I still feel like her mother. There is nothing I long for more besides our reunion.
The Gift of Self-Care
Grieving parents carry their loss in their bodies as well as their hearts and their souls. They ache in both physical and emotional ways. They require a broad spectrum of support simply to sustain their will to live. Healing modalities, both allopathic and alternative, often must be applied in combination to keep them going. But grief is costly. There are upfront expenses most bereaved parents were never prepared to face. Often, ongoing costs are revealed months or even years after the loss. Gift cards or appointments for massage, Reiki, acupuncture, counseling, seeing a nutritionist, or any number of other support services are invaluable. Books, essential oils, whole foods, soft clothes, and a host of other comfort and self-help products will likely be treasured. Experiences of pleasure or diversion like art or cooking classes, vacations, entertainment, retreats, and other opportunities to find a moment of enjoyment or appreciation do more than just fill a slot under the tree. If nothing else, you can give them money they can put towards meeting their needs in an effort to help provide support.
The Gift of Asking
Every child lost is unique. Every grieving mother or father, sister or brother, is one of a kind. While there are shared and common experiences in grief, we all walk our own dark path. What I need as I mourn Evelyn may be quite different from what another heartsick mother needs to go on. What I need today may change entirely tomorrow. It's okay to ask. ASK what we need. ASK how you can help, what you can give. ASK what our child loved while they were alive and give us that. ASK us what medicine helps our hearts continue beating and get it for us. And when you're done with that, ask some more. Ask about our child's life, and about their death. Ask if we'd rather talk or listen. Ask if we prefer books or movies, conversation or quiet, space or presence. We don't expect you to be mind readers, but we do yearn to feel that our child mattered enough to you for you to want to support us in our grief, and to remember and honor them in all the ways that they deserve.