Christmas can be a tough time of year to navigate, especially as a bereaved parent. It feels like there is a lot of pressure to be happy at this time of year. Grief can be a taboo subject at the best of times, but more so at Christmas. There are memories of previous happy Christmases to navigate and the reminder that life for us bereaved parents will never be what it once was. It can feel like a very lonely time of year, putting on a mask and hiding the sadness inside.
Christmas for us is a difficult time, not just because of all the usual things that come with the festive season, but because it is also linked with the memories of Jessica’s last heart surgery. Two days after her last Christmas, we went into hospital for her Fontan surgery. The surgery went well and we ended the year full of hope. The surgery that had been hanging over us for the last few years had happened; we thought we might be able to look ahead to having normality again. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Looking back now, it feels like the Fontan marks the beginning of the end of Jessica’s life. The memories of that time are very painful ones.
Juggling grief while trying to keep the Christmas magic for Sophie and Thomas is not easy. This time of year is a rollercoaster of emotions. Trying to get through the festive season as best we can. Over the last four years, we’ve found various ways of making this time of year a little easier to get through. These are the things that have helped us:
1) Doing Christmas differently
We couldn’t face Christmas at home the year Jessica died. Too many memories of the previous year and the thought of that empty chair at our table was unbearable. We needed to do something completely different. Thanks to the generosity of some of my blogger friends, we were offered a stay at Coombe Mill in Cornwall. It was just what we needed to get through that first, very difficult, Christmas without Jessica.
Getting away as just our family unit was the best thing we could have done. By isolating ourselves, we took away any pressure to be happy for others. We were able to mark Christmas Day quietly and to be able to feel the sadness we needed to. It also provided an opportunity to make some magical memories for Sophie and Thomas too. Getting outside in the fresh air every morning and feeding the animals was a wonderful experience for Sophie. She loved it so much that we’ve returned to Coombe Mill twice more since – the following Christmas and again in summer 2021.
Getting away was what made those first two Christmases without Jessica more bearable. Having that option suddenly taken away last year, just a few days before we were due to go, was really hard. The thought of spending Christmas at home without Jessica was unbearable and then suddenly we were forced to do just that. As has often been the case with anniversaries and special days though, the anticipation was harder than the actual day itself. We found that making Jessica a part of the day by taking her Christmas stocking to her forever bed and spending time with her there helped give us the space we needed for her and our grief and made the day a little easier to bear.
2) Finding ways to include Jessica in our Christmas preparations and celebrations
We always try to include Jessica in our Christmas in as many different ways as possible. Her name is always included in our family Christmas cards. Our annual Christmas card photo still includes her thanks to the magic of Photoshop. We have special decorations on our tree to honour Jessica, many of which were given to us by friends and family in memory of our wonderful girl. These all go at the top of our Christmas tree where they’re out of reach of little fingers, as do the decorations that Jessica made herself, which are now treasured possessions. We also made a special angel which now sits on top of our tree.
We still hang out Jessica’s Christmas stocking with her siblings’ ones. Some of our friends still give gifts for Jessica – little things for our Christmas tree or for the area in our garden around the ‘Pretty Jessica’ roses which is our outdoor space dedicated to Jessica. These gifts go in Jessica’s stocking, along with some little things that her brother and sister can share on Christmas morning as we sit and remember Jessica. There are gifts for the grandparents from Jessica still (often photos or something robin or angel-themed). Our gift for Jessica is the Christmas wreath I make each year for her forever bed, but we also give something to a local toy appeal in memory of Jessica. She was a little joy-carrier and it feels appropriate to do something for someone else to continue to spread joy in her memory.
3) Allowing space for our grief
It is important for us to allow space for our grief in amongst the hecticness of the festive season. I have found that grief often hits harder when I don’t allow space for it. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a fellow bereaved parent was the reminder that Jessica needs my attention just as her siblings do. By making space for my grief and sitting with it, and my memories of her, I give her that attention. Re-framing my grief as my space and time for Jessica does help make it easier. I try to allow myself the space to feel the sadness when it hits; to ride the waves of grief rather than trying to fight them.
One way in which we actively make space for our grief is by attending the Christmas remembrance service at the woodland burial park where Jessica was laid to rest. It’s a safe space where grief and our loved ones are acknowledged, remembered and made part of the festive season.
4) Being open with others
Grief is one of those things that isn’t talked about enough. People are often uncomfortable around those who are grieving. They don’t know what to say or do, or how to make it better. Sharing my experiences as a bereaved parent and the things that are helpful or that I wish others would say or do helps make it easier for those around me to know how to respond to my grief. They can’t fix it, but being willing to walk alongside us in our grief is a huge gift.
5) Accepting that grief and joy can co-exist
It’s taken me a while to make peace with this one. Early on in our grief, happiness almost felt like a betrayal. How could we laugh and have moments of happiness when Jessica wasn’t here to share them? I’ve learned that allowing happiness in does not mean missing or loving Jessica any less. It’s okay to have happy moments, it’s okay to embrace the magic of Christmas if that’s what we want to do and equally it’s okay to have the moments of wanting to hide away from the festivities and embrace the grief too.
Everyone copes with grief differently. These are the things that work for us. If you’re grieving and finding the festive season hard, I hope you find some of these helpful. Please know that you are not alone and there is support available if you need it. This week is National Grief Awareness Week, which aims to highlight the impact of grief, to raise awareness of the support networks available, break the taboos around grief and to make it easier for people to talk about it. For us as bereaved parents, we have found peer support through The Compassionate Friends helpful. You can find more information about Grief Awareness Week and the support available on the Good Grief Trust website here.
Please note this is not a sponsored post, nor has it been written in collaboration with any organisations mentioned. I am simply sharing my experiences in order to help others.