Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the Dec. 22, 1988 issue of the Brattleboro Reformer.
For parents of children who have died, the holiday season can be the worst time of the year. They may dread Christmas morning when the absent child will not rush downstairs to see what Santa has left under the tree.
"As the holiday gets closer, they begin to dread it and become more anxious as the day approaches to the point that when the holiday arrives, they’re almost in a panic state," said Karen Wirein, leader of the Monadnock Chapter of Compassionate Friends. Compassionate Friends is a nationwide network of support groups for bereaved parents.
Birthdays and anniversaries, Wirein said, can also be difficult occasions for the bereaved.
Since there is no way to avoid the dreaded day, she explained, it is important for bereaved parents to prepare for it. "I would strongly suggest deviating from tradition. For example, if they’ve always stayed home, this year go out; or open presents Christmas Eve if you usually do it Christmas day. Shop by mail -- malls can be distressing because everywhere is joviality -- and the encouragement of family traditions that just aren’t going to work this year."
She said it is important for the bereaved to do something poignant on that day -- volunteer half a day in a hospital, bring some toys to a children’s center, write a letter they’ve been meaning to write, or visit someone they’ve been meaning to visit.
"It shouldn’t be a day that just comes and goes become that just underscores the emptiness," Wirein said.
Eli Daker is programs director for the Brattleboro Area Hospice. Her work puts her in touch with grief. "The holiday season tends to be terrible for everyone, even in the best circumstances," Daker said.
Cultural expectations, she said, put "people on the spot not to bring other people down. People find themselves living a lie."
Like Wirein, she suggested creating new rituals. For example, a grieving person might keep a journal just for the holiday season. It might be called, "The Journal of the Lousiest Christmas Possible," she said, or, "A Christmas of Loss and Memories and Unfulfilled Futures."
Do holidays get easier for bereaved parents as the years go by?
"Not true!" said Ann Niemela. Niemela is a Monadnock Compassionate Friends board member and a bereaved parent. "In fact, this year I’m having a hard time and it’s almost 15 years. I think the big reason is because it’s so family oriented and other people are just so busy with their families -- it just magnifies it a bit."
Another mother whose baby died at birth made a similar observation. She said seeing all the family festivities makes the solstice season particularly difficult for her. "It’s almost like my child is here to me," she said, "but invisible to everyone else."
How can friends help? Both Niemela and Wirein stressed that friends should let bereaved parents move at their own pace and not push them by making suggestions about what they ought to do. If you have a party, they argued, let the parents know they are welcome to participate fully, partially, or not at all and that it’s fine for them to decide at the last moment whether or not to come.
Niemela said support groups can help because they are a safe place to be -- "a place where people understand and don’t make you feel guilty abut hating Christmas and not being jovial and jolly and putting on a facade."
Although friends cannot remove the agony of a grieving person, Niemela pointed out that they can alleviate things by quietly pitching in with practical help. Grieving is exhausting, and even simple tasks can seem overwhelming. "I think it would be helpful if someone were close enough, they might take the bull by the horns and do things for them -- get the tree, decorate it, silently, not making a fuss. We all like those things, but sometimes it’s just too much of a chore," she added.
National Website for Compassionate Friends has a local chapter locator: http://www.compassionatefriends.org
Steven K-Brooks writes from Brattleboro. His daughter, Ember, would have been 28 this past September.