Grief and life after Jessica: coping with Christmas

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.

 

A heart shaped glass ornament with a white feather inside and the name 'Jessica' on it

 

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.

 

Sophie feeding a pony

 

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.

 

Sophie cuddling the wooden carving of Jessica at her forever bed with a Christmas wreath on the ground in front of them

 

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.

 

Our Jessica angel made from a polystyrene ball and paper cup on top of a Christmas 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.

 

Sophie and Thomas standing next to Jessica's memorial at her forever bed with a Christmas bauble hanging from Jessica's Kerry doll, a daughter card propped against Jessica's memorial and a bouquet of colourful roses in a wooden vase

 

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.

 

Me, hubby, Sophie (holding Jessica's Christmas stocking) and Thomas (holding a picture of Jessica) at Jessica's forever bed on Christmas Day

 

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14 thoughts on “Grief and life after Jessica: coping with Christmas

  1. Sending love and hugs. I can imagine the pain you go through every day, not just over Christmas. It must have been good to get away over Christmas to Coombe Mill and it is fantastic that Jessica is such a big part of Christmas. The angel on the top of the tree is just adorable. x

    1. Thank you Kim. Getting away for Christmas those first two years helped us so much and it is so important to us to keep Jessica a big part of our Christmases too x

  2. It’s a really important post. I do think people learning how to let people talk about loss is so important. It’s strange we’re so uncomfortable with it. I think the changing it up is a great way to ease the experience for the milestone markers where the hole seems to grow a little bigger. I like the stocking idea. And I am so sorry for the loss, there really aren’t adequate words. #MischiefandMemories

    1. Thank you so much Lydia. Grief and loss is something that needs to be talked about more and hopefully sharing my experiences helps others to become more comfortable talking about these things.

    1. Thank you so much Jeremy. Wishing peace and happiness to you and yours for the festive season too.

  3. You are so right, grief is not talked about enough and it should be. When I was young I was brought up to think that grief was something that had to be hidden away. My Dad died when I was little but no-one ever talked about him or spoke his name. I used to ‘run away’ a lot but I was always found by my Dad’s grave. Maybe if I’d been given the chance to talk and remember him at home I’d have coped better. I think you are doing an amazing job, grief is one of the hardest things we ever have to endure and everyone is different, but it should be spoken about and our loved ones never forgotten. We will all remember beautiful little Jessica.
    On a side note, it’s my eldest daughter’s job to assist in theatre for fontan surgery, I really don’t know how she does it. x

    1. It must have been hard not being able to talk about your dad. I do think talking about grief is so important – it helps me so much to be able to talk about Jessica and I think it also helps others to become more comfortable with talking about grief by doing so. It means a lot to know that Jessica is remembered. I didn’t realise that your eldest assists in theatre for fontan surgery. That’s an amazing job x

  4. The picture of Sophie with her arms around Jessica’s memorial is so hard to see. Sending you our love from Yorkshire, and thank you for lighting this dark way for others who are sadly coming along all too often on the LHM pages. Paul and family

    1. Thank you. I love that she still talks about Jessica a lot and that love is so clearly there but yes it is heartbreaking too. Always breaks my heart when another family finds themselves on this side of the heart community. Hope you are all keeping well, lots of love to you all and best wishes for Christmas x

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