For Friends and Family: Supporting Parents During the Holiday Season

For parents facing a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition and for parents grieving the loss of their baby, the holiday season can be complicated. Parents may feel a heightened sense of grief as they balance the holidays and the realities of their impending loss or the complicated emotions that come with grieving a baby.

The holiday season places an emphasis on family, togetherness, and celebrations, and for grieving parents, this can feel incongruent with how they are feeling. Their immediate family may feel incomplete as they struggle to come to terms with the idea of losing their child or as they grieve the child they lost. As their extended family gathers together, they may feel that loss or impending loss more as they are acutely aware of the person missing from the family gathering.

There are no rules or set patterns when it comes to how grieving parents will feel about the holiday season. Just like grief, each experience is wholly unique. For some parents, the celebrations and family gatherings may feel like a welcome distraction or chance to make memories. For others, the idea of celebrating or gathering with family in this season may feel exhausting, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.

As the friends and family members supporting grieving parents, it is important to set aside any expectations you may have for the holiday season and the grieving parents in your life. It is important that you honor their emotions and their grief by meeting them wherever they are in the process this year.

Each holiday may bring with it a new set of emotions. Not every holiday will feel as intense for parents, and it is important to remember to take each holiday and each year one at a time. How a parent navigates Halloween will not necessarily be how they navigate Thanksgiving and so on. Make a point to check-in as each holiday approaches to see how the parents are feeling, what they might need, and what you can expect from them in terms of involvement.

Navigating the holidays in grief is not an easy experience. As the friends and family members, the best thing you can offer to parents is your understanding and your empathy. To help you care well for grieving families during the holiday season, follow the SAVE model. SAVE stands for support, acknowledge, validate, and embrace.


SAVE stands for support, acknowledge, validate, and embrace.

Support

Your support is a gift to grieving parents. You can offer your support to these parents, even if you do not understand or fully agree with how they are navigating their grief. Support is like empathy in that it does not require a shared experience or a personal understanding of the emotions that stem from that experience. Like empathy, support is about being aware of the complicated nature of the experience, being sensitive to the emotions and grief experienced by the parents, and then attempting to put yourself in their shoes in order to offer the support they need. It is about considering their perspective rather than relying on your own understanding.

As the holidays approach, it is important to remember that this season can cause what may seem like a backslide into grief. You may notice that the grieving parents in your life seemed balanced or as though they were coping well with their experience and grief until the holiday season started. This is normal as the holidays bring with them new and unexpected triggers, or things that brings up intense feelings of grief, memories, complicated emotions, or even flashbacks that bring the parents back, mentally and emotionally, to the moment of diagnosis, loss, or any other point in their journey.

This can be true whether the parents are currently pregnant, navigating their first holiday season after loss, or navigating the holiday season two, five, ten, or even twenty years down the line. The grieving process following the death of a baby has no timeline. There is no end-date for a parent’s grief, so do not be surprised if you notice a resurgence in a parent’s grief over the holidays. While there is nothing you can do to fix the grief felt by the grieving parents in your life, you can offer your support to make this season a little more manageable for them.

It can be difficult for the parents, who have received so much support since the diagnosis, to ask for more support in a season in which people are typically busier and focused on their own family and needs. So, family and friends, take a moment this holiday season to think about the grieving parents in your life. Reach out to them and check-in on them regularly as each holiday approaches. Ask them how they are doing and how they are feeling in light of the season. Offer them a safe space to talk and grieve as needed. Invite and include them in holiday events, while also offering them the freedom to decline or change their mind about accepting.

The holidays can be overwhelming, especially given the more social nature of it, and it is important that parents feel the freedom to take each holiday on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. Grief is unexpected, and it can be anxiety-inducing to accept an invitation to an event when the parent may not know how they will feel on the actual day. When you offer them the freedom to change their mind about accepting or declining your invitation, you are acknowledging the complex nature of grief and offering your support in a tangible and important way.

You can also offer your support in practical ways by bringing meals, helping with their kids, so that they have time to be alone or grieve as they need to, or offering to help with their gift shopping, grocery shopping, or other errands. Since the holidays often place an emphasis on gift-giving, you can also offer support to parents by including their baby when you give gifts to their family. For more practical tips on giving gifts to parents and for some ideas of what gifts to give, please read our post found here.


Support is about being aware of the complicated nature of the experience, being sensitive to the emotions and grief experienced by the parents, and then attempting to put yourself in their shoes in order to offer the support they need. It is about considering their perspective rather than relying on your own understanding.

ACKNOWLEDGE

The holidays can be a hard season for many people for many reason, so it makes sense that grieving parents might find the holidays to be overwhelming, exhausting, or grief-inducing, especially given the already overwhelming, exhausting, and grief-inducing experiences they are navigating. As the friends and family coming alongside these parents, acknowledging that this season might be hard for the parents is important.

Your acknowledgement is important because first it allows you to anticipate their grief, hold space for that grief, and then offer support as they navigate their grief. Second, your acknowledgement is important because serves as a form of permission. When you say, “I know that this holiday season may be hard for you in light of all that you are experiencing or have experienced, and that is okay. I am here for you,” you are giving the parents permission to hold space for their own grief, embrace their emotions as they come, and then reach out and ask for help from the people who love and support them.

Acknowledgement does not have to be anything big. It can look like sending a text message or making a phone call. It can look like putting out a special decoration, hanging a stocking, or setting an extra place at the table in acknowledgement of the baby. It can look like including the baby and their impact in your list of things you are grateful for. It can look like buying a gift in honor of that child to donate or to give to the parents. Acknowledgement can look however you want and think it should. Ultimately, it is the action of acknowledge, not the method of acknowledgement, that matters and has an impact on the parents.

In a season where family traditions and togetherness are highlighted, it is a tremendous gift to grieving parents to see that their family and friends remember that there should be another person there to participate in all that the holidays bring. Your acknowledgement shows the parents that while their grief may last a lifetime, their baby’s memory and legacy will, too.

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VALIDATE

Validation is simply the recognition or affirmation that a parent’s feelings and experiences are valid, worthwhile, and accepted. Depending on where in the carrying to term or grief process a parent is, they may struggle to feel that their heightened sense of grief in light of the holidays is actually valid. When a parent feels as though they have been grieving for a certain amount of time, or as though they have been coping well, or as though they have so many reasons to be thankful, it can be easy to dismiss their need to express their grief, too. They may feel as though they no longer have the right to talk about their grief, express their emotions, or ask for the support they need.

When you acknowledge the difficulties of the holiday season and offer your support, you are validating their right to still experience grief or still need some extra help. Validation, like acknowledgement, is important for grieving parents because it is another form of permission. You are giving them permission to grieve, and there is power in permission.

So, this holiday season, when a parent expresses their grief or emotions, validate them. Even if you do not fully comprehend it or even if it might not be how you think you would navigate this experience, validate their emotions and grief as worthy of being expressed, as normal, and as understandable given the magnitude of what they are facing or have faced. When a parent expresses their need by asking for help, validate it by offering to meet that need, whether it is a meal, the gift of your time and listening ear, or the gift of your permission to be however they need to be this year.


Validation is simply the recognition or affirmation that a parent’s feelings and experiences are valid, worthwhile, and accepted.

EMBRACE

To embrace someone or something is to accept them willingly and enthusiastically. Grieving parents need to be embraced- exactly as they are- during the holiday season. They can only be where they are at each point in the pregnancy continuation or grief process. No point in the process is permanent, and yet, each point is important to the experience as a whole. This is true for parents navigating what may be the only holiday they will have with their baby, either in pregnancy or after birth, and this is true for parents navigating the holidays after the loss of their baby.

Each holiday will look different this year, and each holiday season over the years will look different. Embrace the parents and their grief by meeting them where they are. Are they looking to the holidays to serve as a distraction? Are they excited to make memories or traditions with their baby or in honor of their baby? Are they experiencing a heightened intensity of grief or a resurgence of grief? Each of these responses are normal and valid. There are no rules for grief and the holidays, so meet them where they are and offer support in alignment with their needs and emotions.

Grief creates a new normal for everyone affected by the loss of a baby. Part of that new normal is the reality that grief is an unpredictable, lifelong experience and process. When you embrace the place a parent is in in their journey, you are supporting them, acknowledging their loss and the impact that baby has, and validating that what they are experiencing is understandable, worthy of being expressed, and a valid reflection of their experience.

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The holidays can be a complicated and emotional time for anyone. Family dynamic can create a range of emotions in a busy and sometimes stressful season. As the friends and relatives supporting grieving parents, it is important to recognize that grief can complicate even the simplest and most normal of experiences. As parents balance their grief and the holidays, they may experience an intense emotional reaction, the desire to isolate, and a focus on self and survival. As a result, you may find yourself grieving the loss of the baby or even feeling hurt by the loss of traditions from years past or the pain of unmet expectations.

Your feelings are valid and worthy of being expressed and worked through. However, it may not be appropriate to express your grief, hurts feelings, or process through your expectations with the grieving parents. It is important that you have your own network of appropriate support people to discuss your feelings as the holidays approach. You can learn more about empathetic communication with grieving parents and finding your own support system in our post found here.

As you navigate this holiday season with the grieving parents in your life, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and empathize with how they might be feeling as the holidays approach. Then, offer your support, acknowledge their baby, validate their emotions, grief, and needs, and embrace the parents by meeting them where they are this holiday season.