Living with the death of a child is difficult at any time of the year but Christmas brings extra challenges for bereaved parents. I should know. This will be my ninth Christmas without my son Owen.
Owen was diagnosed at the age of two with an ependymoma brain tumour. His treatment included nine hours of neurosurgery, eighteen months of chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiotherapy. The cancer spread down his spine and we were eventually told that we could do nothing more than provide palliative care. All of this occurred over a period of four years. Owen died when he was six year old. My husband, my daughter and I were broken and devastated by his death.
Two years after Owen died we decided to add to our family. We had to be prepared to put any new child's needs before our own, to welcome him or her into a happy, functioning family, not one wrecked with loss.
I had another daughter, Sarah. She healed a part of me that had been destroyed by grief. She made me feel joy when I felt that happiness no longer belonged to me.
Sarah is a wonderful excuse for us to once again in engage in the glitter and sparkle of Christmas. She has forced us forward through our grief. Children have an uncanny ability to make us more optimistic, to see life as something wondrous to be appreciated rather than endured.
Owen is still very much part of our family and part of our Christmas traditions. We display the Christmas card he designed, framed and in pride of place in the living room. We put special flowers on his grave along with a small Christmas tree and buy an Oxfam Unwrapped gift in his name- chickens, goats, and schoolbooks for someone in need. Father Christmas even leaves a few presents in Owen's stocking which is still hung up on the fireplace alongside his sisters'. On Christmas morning we will visit his grave and like every day of the year he will be talked about and remembered between all members of our extended family.
Experience has taught me not to expect too much of myself at Christmas time. I try not to be overwhelmed with the festivities. If I don't feel like attending a function, I don't go. I avoid carol services- too emotional and I no longer cry easily so shopping trips with saccharine music being pumped out no longer reduce me to tears. Time has enabled me to handle Christmas and to be part of the festivities without being crippled by grief.
How to cope:
Expect less of yourself and your partner. Don't expect Christmas to be the same, it can't be but that doesn't mean that you can't find some pleasure in the day no matter how small.
If you send out cards, don't be frightened of writing your child's name on them along with other family members- the recipients will understand your need to include your child. I always include Owen's name on our cards.
If you find your old family traditions too painful to recreate without your child, work at creating new ones.
Buy a gift for someone in need, or make a charity donation in your child's name in place of their Christmas present.
Place a small Christmas tree on their grave or buy a tree ornament with their name on it for your Christmas tree at home.
Avoid over indulging in alcohol; it won't help you or your family no matter how tempting it is to try to block out the pain.
Leave your child's stocking out as usual and use it as a talking point for when visitors arrive. Sometimes family and friends avoid talking about a missing loved one and they need prompts to make the conversation happen. Let them know that you need to talk about your child.
Avoid scenarios that might be difficult: carol services, nativity plays, or Christmas parties. Know your limitations and explain to others that Christmas is a difficult time for you.
If you have other children try to ensure that they are supported in their grief too. It can be easy to think that they are caught up in the celebrations and presents but they will miss their sibling and may be unable to express how they are feeling. Surviving siblings sometimes feel like forgotten grievers.
If you feel that you want to abandon your normal Christmas day traditions take a trip aboard or spend the day volunteering.