Navigating grief during the holiday season

Small child lights menorah with help from two adult family members

In the coming days and weeks, many families are either celebrating or preparing for Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the new year. The holiday season centers hope, joy, reflection and togetherness, but for grieving families, these weeks can feel much different. With the world bustling around them, families who are grieving the death of a child can feel especially isolated and lonely during this time.

Grief is a unique journey. And while there are no timelines to follow, and no right or wrong ways to feel, we hope to share some lessons learned from other individuals and families who have somehow managed to navigate this difficult time.

Acknowledge the sadness 

It may feel obvious to acknowledge that there will be sad moments – or to even feel like all of the moments are sad ones. You may feel that the term “sadness” doesn’t even begin to capture the intensity of your feelings. Allow yourself the time and space you need to hold these feelings. While grieving individuals may have well-intentioned friends encouraging them to “move on,” the sadness you are feeling reflects the love you will always hold for those you have lost. It’s also normal for this sadness to come in sudden waves that can’t always be predicted.

Find ways to intentionally remember 

There are many creative ways that families fold in meaningful traditions to remember their child. Some families place a specific candle on the table during special meals to honor their child. For families who celebrate Christmas, it may feel right for you to make a special ornament or still hanging your child’s stocking. Families who celebrate Hanukkah might consider having a special menorah in memory of their child. Perhaps it makes sense to play your child’s favorite game, watch their favorite show, read their favorite book or eat their favorite dessert during these times.

You may have to invite others around you to share stories about your child. As you may have already experienced in your grief, friends and family members may not know what to say, or may be hesitant to talk about your child with you. This can be especially true during the holidays, even when those memories and stories bring so much comfort. If you feel up for it, consider directly asking friends or family to share a memory with you.

If you have other children, they may have strong opinions on how you are celebrating the holidays. They may have their own ideas of what they need during this time. Books like “The Memory Box” by Joanna Rowland can help children think about ways to hold onto memories that we have, while continuing to create new ones.

Be kind to yourself 

Regardless of the ways in which you have celebrated in the past, grief changes everything. Many families share that they have difficulty knowing what they need or what support to ask for. You may either find yourself craving being surrounded by loved ones, or perhaps overwhelmed by the thought of being with others. Sometimes, a trusted friend can help you decide how you may – or may not – want to participate in celebrations.

For families caring for other children, you may feel pressure to make this year’s holidays extra special for your child’s siblings, even though you may be struggling to feel any energy to do anything at all. Both of these feelings are normal and OK. If needed, give yourself permission to pace yourself. You may find that it feels right to scale back – you can resume more traditions next year, but you do not need to decide that now.

Know that there are resources for help 

For many, there is much comfort in knowing that you are not alone. In recognition that this is a difficult time for many, here are a few resources that provide guidance in caring for yourself as you remember your child:

If, prior to their death, your child was cared for at Doernbecher, know that we’re also holding them in our hearts this holiday season. And for all grieving families, we wish you peace in finding comfort, courage to face the days ahead, and loving memories to hold forever in your hearts.

Lindsay Wooster-Halberg, L.C.S.W.
Medical Social Worker
Bridges Program (Pediatric Palliative Care)
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital