Question: Last winter our son died, and now we’re sadly facing the first Christmas without him. We have two other children, and we’re grappling with how to help them find some pleasure in this holiday season without denying the fact that it’s going to be very hard. We welcome your suggestions of things we can do and things to look out for.

Answer: The holiday season is filled with images of happy families gathered around the fireplace, singing songs and making wonderful memories together. For most families it is hard to measure up to that perfect image; for families who have experienced a recent loss, especially one as profound as the death of a child, the gap between the “greeting card” image and reality can be huge.

Although each family’s experience is unique, there are some common issues that often come up around the holidays following a loss. Many families find that the familiar holiday rituals evoke strong memories that, as one parent told me, “peel away the scab” of the loss. Feeling so vulnerable themselves, family members sometimes become protective of each other– dancing around the feelings, uncertain of how to behave for fear of triggering a flood of emotion. Some family members find that when they DO begin to have fun– perhaps for a moment almost forgetting the lost loved one– they suddenly feel guilty for enjoying themselves. Another common response is to idealize the deceased family member, remembering only how wonderful he or she was and forgetting the loved one’s human faults. Although this is a natural reaction, surviving family members may feel left out or less important than the one who died. This is especially difficult for surviving siblings when a child dies.

There are some steps you can take to help you and your children cope and even find some joy in the holiday season. (You’ve already taken the first step just by thinking about this in advance and focusing on the needs and feelings of your children.) Based on what I’ve learned from other families in similar circumstances, here’s what I would suggest:

– Within your family, talk openly about your feelings BEFORE the holiday. Often, it’s a relief to all family members to say out loud that this is a really challenging time.

– Decide together what you want to repeat from past holiday rituals and what you would like to do differently this year. Note that some families decide to do everything differently, perhaps even going away to a new place that doesn’t evoke so many memories. Some families find comfort in doing what they’ve always done, and other families do some of both. The important thing is that you and your family figure out what works best for you.

– Set aside some time for remembering together the experiences you shared with your son. Sometimes, designating a special memorial time can free up the family for a deeper appreciation of the holiday and keep the sad feelings from being so pervasive.

– As you already are, remember to focus on the surviving family members, especially your other two children. They are still here to be cherished and celebrated. And, of course, they need special attention as they deal with their own loss.

– Finally, to keep up your own strength, seek and accept extra support from friends. I hope that you have at least one friend with whom you can let down your guard and pour your heart out. If you haven’t already done so, this would be a good time to seek out a peer support group specifically for parents who have lost children. Many parents have told me that there is nothing else quite like having support from other parents who are on this same journey.

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