Creating meaningful traditions in midst of grief, uncertainty
The Christmas season is often associated with warm emotions – joy, hope and anticipation – but for some, it can also be a time of loss, sadness and grief. The holidays may be a stark reminder of broken relationships, financial struggles, health concerns and general uncertainty for the future.
How can we brace for and embrace Christmas while acknowledging all our feelings in a healthy manner?
As the Advent and Christmas seasons are now upon us, I wonder what Christmas and the upcoming year will be like. More than ever, there is comfort in knowing that my children and I will faithfully celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. His miraculous birth represents hope and salvation, and is something we will always look forward to.
Many changes have happened this year, in the world, in our country, our community, and in my own family. For me, there is a sense of joy as I can’t help, but look forward to experiencing Christmas through the eyes of my young children. Yet, it is tinged with grief and deep reflection as I’m reminded that my family cannot celebrate Christmas together for various reasons.
Twelve years ago this January, my firstborn son passed away unexpectedly during birth when I was nine months pregnant. This time of year, there are moments I’m brought right back to that Christmas, which was supposed to be Keaton’s first. I have a brass ornament that has “Baby’s First Christmas” engraved on it and continue to place it on the tree for him year after year.
Christmas was low key for us that first year. I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying on like “normal,” as if nothing had happened. I was a mother now and needed to honour my grief – a word interchangeable with love – as I instinctually fought to protect the memory of my child.
As years went by, the balance between bitter and sweet became less bitter. We still include our son, as well as our two other babies who passed away during pregnancy, in our Christmas celebrations. We’ve created traditions such as putting up their stockings and writing their names on ornaments. This is my family’s “new normal.”
As Christians, our desire is to be with Jesus and join our loved ones in eternity. The birth of Christ is a beautiful reminder of God’s heavenly gift and ultimate sacrifice. I’ve grown to accept and be at peace, trusting that my babies are being taken care of by Jesus and Mother Mary. God has a plan in place for each and every one of us.
As a result of my losses, I felt a call to support bereaved families as a peer volunteer through Elizabeth Ministry, an international faith-based movement for families grieving loss of an infant. I’ve found that it’s an important part of the healing process to be able to openly express our love for those who have died, especially during Christmas.
Many bereaved families I have spoken to have also expressed the difficulties of celebrating that first year.
“Our first Christmas was three months after we lost our twins, Amanda and Dakota,” said music therapist Sandy Pelley. Sandy and her husband attended a Christmas Eve service, but didn’t feel like fully taking part in holiday festivities.
“Mark and I decided not to go to the family dinner and we did not decorate or do any of the usual get-togethers. I think that everyone has to grieve in their own way and there is nothing wrong with that, it was healthy for us,” she said. Each Christmas since then, this couple has made it a tradition to exchange angel ornaments to represent their children and decorate the tree.
Julia Kuester, another bereaved mom, describes how creating art helped her.
“I wanted others to ‘see’ the someone I was missing even more because we lost our little one before birth. This life mattered and needed due respect too. Adapting and adding new holiday traditions to help keep memories alive was a source of comfort.”
She also shared that lighting a candle and setting a special place at the Christmas table with the photo of her son Thomas was healing for herself and for her husband.
Here are some other ideas to provide comfort, healing, and joy at Christmastime:
- In solidarity with our Catholic community, consider putting up blue lights at your home and business for the “Blue Light Campaign” initiated by the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
- Express yourself through art (writing, drawing, painting, crafting, knitting, etc.)
- Choose special ornaments and stockings to decorate your home.
- Share memories about the person you have lost with others. Include your children and younger generations, even though it may be a relative whom they may not have met personally.
- Write a Christmas card, letter, or journal to your loved one.
- Include a symbol representing them in your Christmas cards.
- Set a place at the table with a photo or memento and light a candle.
- Decorate a loved one’s headstone, say prayers, sing carols, and leave flowers or a small potted tree or poinsettia at the cemetery.
- Choose a special memorial plaque to honour your infant or child. For example, butterfly memorial plaques for infants and children are available from Catholic Cemeteries.
- Plant a tree and display a meaningful garden stone in your yard.
- Include your loved ones in prayers and attend a “Blue Christmas” or Remembrance Mass. Gardens of Gethsemani will host a memorial Mass Dec. 20.
- Make handmade hats, scarves, or blankets for newborns in the NICU, at-risk youth, the homeless, or seniors.
- Give a gift or donation in their honour. Some parishes have a “Jesse Tree” or hampers.
- Create a basket that can be given to a pregnancy support centre or give much-needed items to a shelter, women’s transition house, or long term care home.
- Bake treats that remind you of a loved one and give them as gifts.
- “Pay it forward.” Pay for someone’s coffee, groceries, or dinner bill and leave a card printed with “this act of kindness was done to honour ______.”
- For family photos, use a stuffed bear or other item to represent that person.
- View Christmas light displays, walk, and pray the rosary.
- Explain to young ones the possible meanings and symbols of Christmas in relation to our faith, such as candy canes representing a shepherd’s staff and the red and white stripes as Jesus’ purity and blood.
- For families who have to spend Christmas apart, schedule a time online to do something together such as make hot chocolate, decorate the tree, eat a meal and special dessert, or watch a Christmas movie and chat afterwards about it.
- To connect children and grandparents, sing carols or share cookie recipes, bake them, and drop off/exchange or mail them afterward.
- Start a Gratitude or Kindness Jar. For each day of Advent, write something you are thankful for and things you do that are kind and hang it on the tree or place it in a jar.
- Attend a support group and talk to others who are in a similar situation.
- Be aware of and prepare for “Post-Holiday Blues.”
- What other ideas do you have?
Recently, I created my own support network and decided to build up a community of like-minded women to connect with on a regular basis. We simply wanted to live our lives with purpose and meaning: “thriving,” and not just “surviving.”
Inspired by an online summit for moms by Lisa Canning, I reached out to others who felt the same way. In this group, we encourage each other, share resources and strengthen fellowship in the spirit of our faith; the response has been fantastic. I plan to continue this group into the new year.
Hana Hutchinson, a mother of three, suggests creating new Christmas traditions that you and your family find meaningful when things don’t go as planned. Children especially look forward to predictable rituals and routines and you can ask them what simple things they enjoy doing.
Remember to be kind and gentle on yourself, as well as others. Underneath the mask, people may not admit they’re dealing with major life events such as missing a loved one; suffering from strained or broken relationships; struggling to pay bills; battling a health issue; caring for the sick; or feeling estranged from their faith.
You are not alone. “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” This year, more than ever, take time to welcome Baby Jesus into your heart, no matter what your circumstances might be.
If life becomes overwhelming, consider speaking with a priest or healthcare professional. Leah Bittante, an educator with Personality and Human Relations (an international school of personal growth) suggests “making sure to take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually; booking an appointment ahead of the holidays with a counsellor or therapist and not waiting until the grief hits hard. You can also take time to look at how you are living it well.”
As we rejoice in the Messiah’s birth, we acknowledge the bitterness of his death brings about the sweet victory of his resurrection. Know that he embraces us and our loved ones, here on earth as he does in heaven.
By Donna Laggui Crombie
Published on the BC Catholic website.