Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 12/03/2011

Coping with holidays: Remembering a deceased child

What is “remembering”?

Not all of us welcome traditions and expectations or even joyous homecomings while caught in the grip of grief for a child, and that’s natural. Oftentimes it is the fact that the world goes on… that we go on… without the child that is the most private and painful  insult we feel. Holidays, especially, are meant to be shared with family and friends. Each one  — from Christmas to Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day and birthdays — shines a unique spotlight on absent family members.

If a brother is serving overseas in the military, or a sister is in prison during the holidays, we still hold a mental chair for them at the table. It’s natural to talk about them, wonder about them, and try to reach out to them through cards and whatever other methods we have. So that begs the question of who could ever be more absent and unreachable than a dead child? And when it’s the third year or the fifth and other family members don’t want to bring up the child’s name again, to “move on” — what is a parent to do who still aches over that empty chair?

The holidays can also represent a guilt train on which we hold the first ticket sold. “How can I celebrate when my child is dead?”

If you can, stand back from what is happening to you and around you as the holidays encroach to ask yourself a few questions about how you want to carry your missing child into the holiday to give them “presence”, too.

  • Are you wanting to remember your child privately or publicly, involving other family members or friends?
  • Is “remembering” another word for “honoring”  the dead child above the celebration? This is what happens when holidays are turned into subsequent memorials for the child. And if that is your intent, or the family’s intent as you struggle through the first, second or even tenth holiday of its kind, that’s fine — if everyone acknowledges that goal. What is not fine is to turn a blind corner and find yourself at the intersection where  you want to host or attend a memorial (even a mental one, where the child is discussed and remembered) when others may be gathering for more traditional or straightforward reasons, like to have a family meal and light-hearted talk. You may be hurt and surprised that they may purposely steer away from your child out of consideration for you and others.
  • Can you “remember” your child (whether your actual child or niece, nephew, grandchild or friend)  without  jumping in the hole in the sidewalk (see that post) to revisit the pain of the passing or absence? Are you ready for that?

Two planes of existence?

It’s my own experience that initially holidays make a grieving parent a bit schizophrenic. We are physically at one celebration, but oftentimes find ourselves mentally revisiting past celebrations or thinking of how this actual celebration could have been, if our child were present. Tears come unexpectedly, while making a favorite dish for the dinner, or seeing another family member who would be about the same age as the child — or seeing another pregnant woman (women often understand what I’m saying here).

It feels wrong to not buy a gift for the child. Or have their picture in the album (or posted on flicr). It is HARD and no one else knows how to help us through it.

This is a very natural stress point for marriages, too. One partner may deal with holidays very differently than another, and not even want to discuss it. Or a partner may feel impotent to comfort the other, as they are negotiating difficult white water rapids, too. Grandparents don’t know what to do or say to mitigate their own grief. It may feel as if you are the only one suffering or even aware that the child is gone, but that is not true. Everyone around you is walking on eggshells, too, even if you don’t know it — and they may take pains to make sure you do NOT know it.

Tip to other family/friends: Saying “I’m aware the holidays may be especially painful for you without [child’s name], and I want you to know that I remember and miss him/her, too,” is a GIFT you can give and mean. You won’t be bringing up thoughts that aren’t already front and center  in the mind of the parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle (etc). This also gives them “permission” not to “spoil your holiday” if they need a few private minutes with you to remember their child and talk about the child or how they are feeling.

So, how do you “get through” or (better yet) “celebrate” a holiday without your child?

You have options for creating a holiday you can live with, or skipping the holiday altogether. And yes, you’re an adult and you actually can “skip” a holiday, but I would suggest that if you do, it is to be authentic to what you are feeling, and not a shield to hide from what you are feeling. Cancelling a holiday (versus celebrating it a different way) is the most radical option, and is best done after a lot of inclusive thinking — thinking about everyone involved, and especially any siblings of the child — because holidays are a part of life and your journey did not end. Your physical journey with your child ended.

Adapting to that distinction is difficult but necessary to move on with your own journey, and to make peace with the beauty and wonder of the relationship you felt, and likely still feel, with your child. It’s moving to the ultimate celebration of a life which Dr. Seuss so aptly put as “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” It’s getting from tears to smiles that is the hard journey, and it takes time.

Assuming you want to at least “get through” the holiday, here are a few suggestions.

  • Before you go to the gathering, or sit down alone with your own holiday thoughts and post a message about your child here. I’m understanding and accepting (even encouraging) of ongoing tributes. Share a favorite story about your loved one — holiday or not. Celebrate that it happened, with your online supporters here, and you can do that here anytime, any day. I’m here for you, and other bereaved parents are here for you, too.
  • Light a candle for your loved one. This doesn’t have to have religious overtones, if that makes you uncomfortable. Celebrate and remember the light they brought into your life.
  • Buy your loved one a present in the form of a bench in a park. A name on a tile. Plant a tree. There are some places (my local dog park, for example) that has the opportunity to do a reasonably priced memorial bench. If you can’t afford it all at once, put a little money aside at significant holidays and birthdays until you can. This way, they didn’t fall off you “buying list” forever, if giving gifts is part of what you love about your holidays.
  • You might make a special memory (in private memory of your child, as a tribute). If your child died at an early age, consider doing something extra meaningful and fun for the siblings, if any. Too often, feelings for them are pushed aside by the feelings for the missing child, and they can feel that keenly.
  • If you child was a young adult or adult when they died, is there a small scholarship you could offer to subsidize a child being able to attend of football game or a play or an event your child enjoyed? Hint: Check with The Salvation Army in your area; they can coordinate outings for children who otherwise couldn’t go.
  • Share a holiday prayer which includes your loved one at the family dinner table.
  • If you child is brought up by someone else at the table, and it takes you or others by surprise, be prepared in advance to ask everyone to tell a humorous story about your loved one if appropriate to the age of your child. This relieves pressure and steers discussion away from the death details.
  • Review what you want from the holiday and get rid of things you’ve always done that don’t contribute to that. Do you really have to peel potatoes? If you love cooking, yes. If you don’t, get rid of the burden and buy one of the real mashed potato products already at the grocery store. Get rid of “obligations” to give you more time and energy for the activities that really bring you joy, and this will go a long way toward bringing the real meaning of  the holiday to the surface again.
  • Have a Plan B. Tell family that you’ve made two plans and if you need to leave, leave. Don’t back away from true feelings (versus hiding) and be respectful of your own true  feelings as well as those of others.

 Have something to add to this list? Chime in!

Thanks for joining me at The Watering Hole. Your comments are appreciated.


  1. Thank you for this post. This is the 3rd “holiday” season since losing our son, Andrew, to osteosarcoma, at age 16. There is barely a day that goes by that he isn’t a part of my conscious day, with vivid snapshots of him in my waking and sleeping vision. He loved Christmas, and going into the attic to get all the decorating supplies, and shopping, and setting out snacks for Santa. I just feel such absence at this time of year; I feel that I can’t bear it. Next year I think we’ll go someplace totally new…who knows. God bless all of our children, those with lives to lead and those lost too too young.

  2. It is not even 3 months since my 28 year old son passed away and its going to be Mothers day. How do I face that day? I have 2 more young adult sons and I must be a fair mother for I love them dearly. BUT number one son is gone. I shake at the thought of sunday morning. Can anyone suggest how to get passed the first mothers day?

  3. My son died my suicide on Christmas Day. How will we ever have Christmas again?

    • Melissa- I’m sitting here on Christmas day reading through these posts instead of being with my family for dinner and gift exchange. I just couldn’t bear to do the same things we’ve always done after my precious daughter died in a horrific car accident on October 6th, just 80 days ago. Even though I have more time between her death and Christmas than you do, I still ask myself the same question. How will we ever find joy in this day again? I chose not to decorate our house at all, and it felt better to me to just try as much as possible for it to be just another normal painful day. I’m glad I was strong enough to stand up to family expectations and do what felt best for me. I hope you find your way and felt some amount of peace and joy this year. Hopefully it will return a little more every year.

  4. Last Christmas was our first Christmas with out my little man. My family did not understand completely why I was “cancelling” Christmas. See, normally I am the home that goes all out, decorations inside and out, stockings hanging for everybody and I even keep some extras incase anybody shows up. Kaydin would help me decorate, bake and prepare for the gathering – after he died all my joy for Christmas went with him – last year I planned to have my living and dining rooms painted the weekend after (the 27th) so I spent Christmas day moving furniture to garage and cleaning up – and then after the painters I spent time putting everything back. It was a great distraction. I remember while I was moving furniture back in from the garage a little bird had flown into my kitchen, it was flapping and going crazy. He finally landed on a tree I have in the kitchen by the sliding doors, so I got my broom and carefully inched it towards the little guy and he jumped on it and sat there staring at me while I moved it towards the door and out into the backyard and then he flew away. Several hours later while I went over my day in my head I thought about that bird and realized it was probably my little Kaydin coming to say high – his favorite song was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” we sang that song together all the time and I have a video of him playing it and singing on his little drum set.

    Not sure how I am going to get through this Christmas. I have told my family I will do a Thanksgiving dinner for all so we can have our family gathering – but I will not participate in any Christmas celebrations – I might take a short trip or something – or I may just stay home and think about Kaydin.

    But you will get through the holiday’s, I promise. May not be easy, but you survive. Just talk to your family and let them know how you feel, and what you think YOU need to do to get through. They will appreciate your honesty and probably help you think of new ways to celebrate or remember.

  5. I don’t know how I am going to get through the holidays without my daughter at the thanksgiving table with me but some how I will have to put on a false smile and pretending everything is ok so I won’t ruin thanksgiving for my family.

    I’d rather jus roll up in a ball and cry and it’s so hard because I can’t because of my sons. It’s ver draining trying to be something that you don’t really feel. I want my daughter back I miss her so much but that will never happen so I will pretend to be happy and cover my mouth with rags so no one can hear my sobbing.

  6. This is my 2nd holiday season without Kaydin. On top of the normal grief I am also making a big move from NC to FL. Today it caught up to me – I have been crying all morning and cannot stop. It started when Facebook placed a memory from the last Thanksgivng and Christmas with my Kaydin – just seeing his happy smiling face brought the tears. Now I cannot get them to stop falling. I think I need to get off Facebook until after the holidays – I don’t begrudge anyone for having a wonderful, happy Thanksgiving and Christmas and I understand wanting to share your children’s pictures with everybody – but for those of us who no longer have that ability – it is a constant reminder that we are part of a different club now.

  7. Well I made it through the holiday I cried a lot when I was alone but held strong with my family. And then you see all the empty chair postings and my heart broke she sat next to me last year

    Someone ssked me why I talk so much about Deanna and they wondered if I was afraid I would forget her. How in the world could I ever forget my. Child I worry others will forget her the laughter and joy and all her little pain in the neck habits she had that annoyed people. I would gladly take them back.

  8. I was driving home from work today and someone had put a prayer for the deceased on my daughters Facebook page. The word deceased had a tremendous impact on me I say she has passed but in fact she is deceased my baby girl is deceased I don’t know if I will ever recover from her death and I keep replaying that night over and over in my head. Her brother bound her with a belt around her neck and over her door. His horrific mournful screams are embedded in my mind forever. I keep seeing my baby girl face down on the floor my beautiful baby.

    But the bottom line is my daughter is “deceased”. Such a final word and I will morn the loss of her every day until I die. Sometimes I hope it’s sooner because the pain never stops.
    I never thought I would outlive my daughter I miss her and its so painful to go through every day without her.

  9. My son John McKay Kunz passed away six years ago Thursday Dec 17, and here I am again wondering how to do anything. Don’t even want to get up and make my own breakfast. Dishes are in the sink and have been there for awhile. My husband of almost 26 years called our marriage quits almost a year ago now, and my only other child is on an LDS mission in CA for another year. So I am completely alone this year.
    Writing that John McKay passed away never gets any easier nor does it seem any more possible or real, especially as this season rolls around. It seems especially painful again with my husband gone. There is just raw pain and nothing to relieve. I will go to my knees, and help will come at some point.

  10. This will be the first Christmas since our son died of cancer in April. In a heartbreaking year with immeasurable grief, I find it difficult when I read cards saying ‘Merry Christmas’. I realise now just how little others understand this desperate heartache.
    We can’t put up a tree this year and are only doing what we can manage. We will see our beautiful grandchildren in their home with a lovely tree, we know, however, that we can leave when we like with no pressure. Love to everyone going through this agonising pain this Christmas and beyond.

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