The holiday season, while full of memory-making, time spent with family, and fun celebrations, can be an incredibly stressful season. For people navigating the holidays following the loss of a loved one, it is not uncommon for the holiday season to cause an increase in the intensity of their grief. For families facing the loss of a baby, the holiday season’s emphasis on family, togetherness, and social interaction can be an added stressor that might trigger an intense emotional response or cause families to feel further isolated in their experience.
Navigating the holiday season can be incredibly painful and overwhelming when you know it will likely be your only one with your baby or when you are grieving the loss of that baby. You may find that you experience a range of emotions, some of which might seem confusing or catch you off-guard. You may find that you need to rest more or decline invitations to events more frequently. You may find that embracing the season and creating traditions that include your baby helps you cope. As the grieving parents, only you will know what you need most during this season.
There is no perfect way to celebrate or navigate the holiday season in the midst of grief. Each holiday this year and every holiday season over the years to come will likely look different, and it is important that you give yourself permission to take this season one holiday at a time, and then take each holiday season one year at a time. What you do to honor your grief, your experience, and your child this year does not have to be the standard for years to come.
As the holiday season begins this year, start by acknowledging that the holidays can and may be difficult for you and your family to navigate. Give yourself permission to grieve and accept your emotions and honor your needs as they arise. Once you acknowledge that the holiday season might be difficult for you, you can begin to prepare yourself and your loved ones to navigate it well. To help you feel emotionally equipped and prepared, take the time to identify your needs, communicate boundaries and expectations to those around you, prioritize your self-care, and allow yourself to create memories and traditions at each holiday. At the end of this post, you will find a practical application exercise to help you and your family prepare and plan for this holiday season.
Each holiday will likely feel different and affect your grief uniquely depending on your own connections to the holiday, your dreams for the holiday with your family, and when in the carrying to term and grief process the holiday occurs. Take a moment to identify how you are feeling leading up to a specific holiday and the events around it. Are you anxious, overwhelmed, sad, angry, or numb? Identifying the feelings accompanying a particular holiday can help you identify what you need as the day approaches.
Being around kids trick-or-treating can be triggering, and that is a perfectly normal and valid reaction. Give yourself permission to not pass out candy. You may find that you can attend your children’s school fall events, but that you need your significant other or a friend to take your children trick-or-treating for you. Give yourself permission to engage as much or as little as you need to. Right now, it is okay to prioritize your grief and your self-care.
Being around family for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah can be difficult. It can be hard to navigate their emotions about the diagnosis, pregnancy, and/or loss. It can be triggering and overwhelming to see other pregnant family members or new babies or kids in general. It can be exhausting to navigate questions or share information about how you are doing or about the details of your experience. Give yourself permission to shorten your stay, limit your answers, and set clear boundaries and expectations with your family and friends.
Remember that this is just one year. What you do this year does not have to become the standard for how you navigate holidays. What you do this year does not make you less of a good parent because you could not be there to enjoy every holiday event with your children. What you do this year does not make you less of a good child, sibling, cousin, family member, or friend. Saying no to something to protect your own emotional and mental well-being is not a sign of weakness or failure. You are not the only person who struggles with the holidays in their grief, so trust that it is normal, valid, and perfectly okay to say no to things, to accept your feelings as they come, and to hold space for your grief in a season that was previously full of joy or the normal kind of stressors that you wish were the only stressors in your life right now.
communicate boundaries and expectations
As you acknowledge that the holidays might be difficult for you and as you identify your needs, you may find that you need or want a little extra support from your family and friends. Reach out and ask. Trust that your family and friends want to support you, especially in such an emotionally-charged season. The people in your life who love you and want to be there for you in your grief would gladly provide you with extra support this season, whether it is in the form of bringing you a meal- especially delicious leftovers- or including your kids in the fun events that they are engaging in, so that you can have some time alone.
Do not be afraid to let people help you bear the weight of your grief. Your friends and family want to be there for you, but they may not know what you truly need or want from them, especially during the holiday season. It is a gift to both you and your network of support to identify your needs and then communicate your needs as well as your boundaries and what they can reasonable expect from you this holiday season.
A boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area, and when applied to relationships, boundaries serve as guidelines to ensure healthy communication and interaction between all parties in the relationship. Boundaries allow you, the grieving parent, to set clear expectations about what you are or are not comfortable or emotionally prepared to discuss or participate in right now. Boundaries can be physical, mental, emotional, social, and/or spiritual, and their purpose is to help you prioritize your needs, protect your well-being, provide space for self-care, and preserve the relationships you have with the people in your life. You can put boundaries in place that specifically apply to this holiday season. Boundaries can be ever-evolving, and they can vary depending on the holiday, situation, or relationship.
The steps for establishing healthy boundaries during the holiday season are:
Consider the relationship and holiday in question and what you need from that relationship in this particular season.
Consider the boundaries already in place for that relationship and think through any necessary boundary adjustments in light of the upcoming holiday.
Communicate your boundaries and any adjustments clearly, calmly, and sensitively.
Since the holidays often bring with them stress and a heightened emotional response for everyone, it is important to clearly, calmly, and sensitively express your needs and boundaries as well as clearly, calmly, and sensitively set expectations with your family in advance of the holidays. When you give your family and friends time to process that your grief is likely going to affect how they envisioned the holidays with you, you are allowing them time to process before the holiday itself. This gives them time to work through any hurt, and it allows them time to formulate a sensitive and appropriate response to your needs and expectations.
Remember, even before the holiday season arrives, you already have limited mental and emotional energy for anything outside of the pregnancy, time with your baby, and your grief. You have the right to say no or express your needs and boundaries without explanation or apology. Boundaries help you take care of yourself, and you have every right to do so.
Self-care, the intentional practice of taking care of yourself, comes in many forms, and it looks different for every person. It even looks different depending on the moment, the situation, or the holiday. Like boundaries, which are actually a form of self-care, self-care can be physical, mental, emotional, social, and/or spiritual. It is important to adopt a self-care practice in each area because when one aspect of your being is taxed or overstressed, those effects can seep into other areas of your life. If you are not making time to take care of yourself emotionally, you are less likely to take good physical care of yourself and you may feel spiritually depleted, mentally drained, and socially overwhelmed.
As the holidays approach, consider adopting a well-rounded practice of self-care. This can be something as simple as setting aside just 5-10 minutes every day to engage in a relaxing, enjoyable activity. There is no right or wrong way to self-care, as long as you are taking care of yourself in a healthy way. Below, you will find a list of self-care practices to consider and incorporate this holiday season:
Intentionally plan for downtime and rest.
The holiday season is a marathon not a sprint. Find a few minutes every day to just sit and be still, read, watch TV, or do something restful.
Know yourself and plan accordingly.
If you are an introvert, be sure to plan for alone time daily or at the very least, regularly.
If you are an extrovert, be sure to plan for intentional social connection regularly.
Get a good night’s sleep regularly.
Sleep is very important, and it is often neglected in highly emotionally and busy seasons. Create a calm, consistent bedtime routine to help you wind down.
This does not have to be intense. Short walks or gentle yoga are equally as effective. Focus on moving your body daily.
Eat balanced and healthy meals.
Definitely enjoy all the delicious, nostalgic, and seasonal foods, but balance them with your favorite healthier meals. Too much of the heavier and sweeter foods can affect your mood and your sense of physical well-being. Your mind and body will thank you for balancing your intake.
Limit your engagement on social media or consider a social media break.
Social media can be anxiety inducing. It can trick you into believing the lie that you somehow do not measure up. It also perpetuates the illusion that everyone else’s life is perfect and free from struggles. Social media can be incredibly isolating throughout the year, but the holidays can intensify the emotionally triggering aspects of social media. Taking a break from social media, muting accounts or people, or just being choosy about what content you read and when is a good example of self-care.
Balance the commitments of the holidays by engaging in your favorite activities.
Make sure you allocate time for the things you love doing, whether it is reading your favorite book, cooking, baking, hiking, watching television, or playing a pick-up game of your favorite sport. Making time for the things you love will help you feel grounded and not overwhelmed by the holiday fanfare.
Make time for your immediate family and significant other.
The holidays can come with a lot of social engagements and the experience of traveling to see family or having family in town. While these things are important, it is equally as important, if not more, that you allocate time to be intentional with your immediate family and your significant other. Go on a date night with your significant other and plan a family outing or movie night at home with your significant other and kids.
Eliminate some of your stress by budgeting for conveniences.
The holiday season often means increased spending. Be sure you plan for your budget to allow for conveniences like eating out, picking up dinner when you just cannot cook, or doing all of your holiday shopping online. Consider allocating extra funds for outgoings like going to the movies, holiday themed events in your town that your family would enjoy, or even taking a trip somewhere to get out of your routine and make memories. Your budget could even include room for a monthly subscription to a streaming TV service to ensure that you allot for rest and downtime.
Acknowledge and hold space for your grief as it arises.
The holidays are full of triggers, and it is important that you prepare yourself for the inevitable reality that you will get hit with grief at some point over the holidays. By acknowledging that, you can prepare yourself for when it happens. What helps you when you get hit with a wave of grief? Prioritize that self-care when a wave hits you. Ask for help from your network of support when you need it.
Establish and enforce your boundaries.
Give yourself permission to place time limits on visits and phone calls. Give yourself permission to turn your phone off or put it on silent for periods of time throughout the day. Give yourself permission to not answer questions, justify your grief, or provide any information you are not ready to share. Give yourself permission to not be responsible for supporting the emotions of your family and friends.
Engage in holiday events when you feel up for it.
Give yourself permission to loosely commit only to what you really want to and think you can handle, with the freedom to cancel if you need to. Consider taking a support person with you to help you navigate small talk and questions. Give yourself permission to leave when you need to. Say no to social events, requests, or anything else that does not feel like self-care in this season.
Avoid a particular holiday if you need to.
Avoidance, when done intentionally and temporarily, can actually be a very helpful coping skill. Give yourself permission to not celebrate, decorate, or engage in events specific to a holiday that you just are not ready to face. It is important that you do not avoid or isolate for long periods of time or without the support of someone you trust to check in on you regularly.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and you know your own needs best. You have the full permission to pick and choose what feels right for you and your family. Allow yourself the permission to adjust your self-care daily or based on each holiday and your reaction to it. Self-care is a healthy, intentional, and important way to cope with the demands, triggers, stresses, and even the joy of the holiday season.
create memories and traditions
The holidays, while stressful, are also wonderful, joyful, and sentimental occasions. While in grief, it can be easy to believe the lie that you do not deserve to or have a right to or even have the ability to experience joy, happiness, laughter, and the beauty that exists around you.
No matter where you are in the carrying to term and grief journey, you have the full, free permission and right to laugh, smile, make memories, and engage in this season of life. There is room for grief and joy. You are not dishonoring your baby if you find joy this holiday season, nor are you dishonoring your family or the holidays if you experience a heightened intensity of grief.
Many families find that making memories and creating traditions with their baby or in honor of their baby is a helpful coping skill. Your memories and traditions will vary based on the holiday, and they can vary every year. This is your time to experience and celebrate the holidays how you choose. This is your time to create a legacy in honor of your baby. Below you will find a list of ideas for memory-making and traditions this holiday season:
Carve a pumpkin while pregnant with your baby, with your baby, or in honor of your baby.
Take fall photos while pregnant with your baby, while your baby is with you, or include a special keepsake in honor of your baby in the photos.
Buy yourself fall flowers or light a fall scented candle in honor of your baby.
As you share what you are thankful for, include a memory or special story about your baby and your experience.
Buy and donate gifts for a child the same age as your son or daughter would be each year.
Buy a decorative item in honor of your baby and put it out every year.
Do random acts of kindness or service projects in honor of your baby.
Bake delicious foods or treats and take them to your local firehouse, police station, hospital, neonatal intensive care unit, or senior living center.
Send a holiday card or note to the people who are currently or have cared well for you following diagnosis, in pregnancy, or after loss.
Talk about your baby as you want to and choose to throughout the holiday season.
Create playlist of holiday songs or general songs that remind you of your baby and listen to it when you need to feel connected.
Create a memory tablecloth, table runner, or wall canvas. Have family members and friends write down their favorite memory of your baby or quotes, verses, lyrics, or any words that remind them of your baby.
Take a trip while pregnant to the place you always imagined taking your son or daughter or take a trip to the place where you feel the most connected to your baby.
Take a moment of silence as a family in honor of your baby.
Lay out an extra place setting in honor of your baby.
Make a donation to an organization in memory of your baby.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Create the memories and traditions that feel right to you and your family. You have the permission and right to not create traditions if that feels best for you. Remember, this is a holiday-by-holiday, year-by-year process. Each holiday can look unique. It is entirely up to you how you navigate the holiday season after the diagnosis, during pregnancy continuation, in the time you have with your baby, and after the loss of your baby. There is no right or wrong.
Carrying To Term would love to know the traditions you have created or plan to create in honor of your baby. If you want to share with us, please click here.
Practical Application exercise
As this year’s holiday season approaches, take a moment to write down all the holidays that you and your family celebrate or participate in. Once you have them written down, start by listing the emotions you associated with each holiday prior to receiving the diagnosis or prior to your loss. Then, list the emotions you now associate with each holiday. This allows you to see clearly where your grief has affected your current perception of the holidays or where your grief really has not changed your perception of the holidays.
Next, write down any events that you know are likely to come up as the holidays approach. Things like fall festivals, family events, work holiday parties, family photos and cards, or any other event you may likely be asked to participate it. Then, write down what you need. Do you need to avoid certain holiday events? Do you need someone to attend certain events with you for support? Do you need extra help with engaging your kids on the holiday or with meals in that season? Next to each need, write out the name of the person you would feel most comfortable asking for that help.
Then, write down your boundaries and needs for self-care. Do you want to talk about your baby, the diagnosis, and your experience? Do you need to build in time to allow for extra sleep, relaxation, or time alone? Do you need to factor in extra room in the budget for conveniences like eating out, doing your holiday shopping online, or entertainment like going to see movies or getting an online TV subscription service? By outlining what you need and what you identify as being helpful in this season, you then have a starting point for this conversation with your significant other, family, and friends.
Finally, write down your traditions. What traditions do you already have for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, or any other holiday you celebrate? How you can incorporate your baby into those traditions? What traditions did you imagine creating with your baby before diagnosis and loss? What traditions could you imagine putting in place this year or in the years to come that honor your grief and your precious baby?
Now, you have a guide to navigating the holidays that is specific to your grief, your experience, and your needs. Share this guide with your significant other and see how it aligns with their guide. Invite your other children into the process and work together as a family to outline the holiday experiences you want and need.
As a way to see how your grief changes and what traditions you have created in honor of your baby over the years, keep this guide. Add to it. Make notes. Include it along with any pictures you take in a memory book. Let it become a record of this experience and also a reminder that you can do hard things and you can create joy and beautiful memories in the midst of unimaginable grief and loss.
The holiday season is hard. Navigating the holiday season when you are facing the loss of your baby or grieving that death is hard. There is no denying that reality, but the holidays can be a time for you to feel supported, loved, and seen. This season can be one where your baby is included, loved, grieved, and remembered year after year. Invite people into this process and let them care for you. Start by acknowledging the reality of this season. Then, identify your needs, communicate your boundaries and expectations to those in your life, make time for intentional self-care, and allow yourself to make memories and create traditions if you want to. There is room for grief and joy. You deserve joy, and may this holiday season bring you some.