Grief at Holidays

My son Mikey died on New Year’s Eve when he was just 10 weeks old. When the sun rose the next day, I couldn’t believe the world was still turning, and I certainly didn’t feel like celebrating the march of time. It felt lonely to be grieving when the world is celebrating family, hearth and home. I’ve now spent 19 years navigating the holidays without my son. The year after he died, we had another baby, and we wanted New Years to be as different as possible. The night Mikey died, we were spending a quiet evening at home, watching old movies and writing Christmas thank you notes. That next year, we went to a party and held the new baby throughout the festivities. I watched the clock, wondering if I could get through the hour Mikey died. Partying didn’t seem like the right way to pass that holiday. We’ve since experimented on how to handle New Years. We stayed in. We went out. We went to mass. We went to the cemetery. We tried making new traditions. Fireworks in town. Chinese take-out. Three Stooges marathons. Nothing seemed quite right. For me, something always feels notquite-right during the holidays. I lowered my expectations of a “perfect” holiday, which is difficult for me as I’m a Martha Stewart wanna-be. We now celebrate by slowing down and seeing friends and family in intimate gatherings. If I feel off-kilter, it’s because I need a good cry, so I get out the photos and let the tears fall. How can you find the best way handle grief at the holidays? Accept that grief will be present and do what feels right to you. Not so simple when the loudest voice in your head is the angry and sad. You have to listen carefully to hear beyond the grief. This fall, a newly bereaved widow asked me to make quilts out of her husband’s old tee-shirts for herself and her two children. She wanted the job done by early March, in time for the 2nd anniversary of his death. Handling this man’s well-loved and soft-as-silk tee-shirts moved me, and I finished the quilts just before Thanksgiving. When the widow picked them up, she tearfully said she didn’t know if she could wait to give them to her children. I said, “Listen to your heart. Who says you have to mark a holiday with this gift? Give it when you feel it’s right, even if it’s an ordinary Tuesday evening. If these quilts revive memories and let you openly grieve, then maybe it will help them handle their loss a bit easier during the holidays.” She gave the quilts to her kids that evening. Presenting the quilts was a difficult but cathartic moment that helped her family talk about their loss, recall some cherished memories and celebrate her husband’s life. That sounds like healthy grieving to me. I’m not suggesting that you make a quilt. I’m saying that as a grieving person, you should give yourself some time to be reflective, to think creatively about what might help you feel the loss and learn to live with it. It’s so easy to get busy especially at this time of year. Many people use that as a coping mechanism to “get through the holidays.” But when you loose someone you love, even if it is a very little someone, do you ever want to just “get through” another day, when you know first-hand that you can’t control how much time you have with loved ones? After 19 years of navigating the holidays without my son, I still miss him, but I have found ways to quietly respect that grief and celebrate the family and friends who are still with me. Listen to your heart. December, 2008 Page 7 For you who have lost your beloved babies, I’m truly sorry. Holidays are especially hard for you. I hope you find can comfort in knowing that there are people out here, thinking of you, praying for you, hoping that you find some respite from your grief.

-Kathy Whelan