As I endure the second holiday season without my oldest child, I wanted to share about my experience last year. Thanksgiving came just 3 1/2 months after he died, and all I wanted to do was crawl in a hole and hide until the season was over. In November and December of last year, I was still very much in a state of shock and numbness and even though I wanted to ignore the holidays altogether, I knew that would not be fair to my girls. They needed Thanksgiving and Christmas to be celebrated they way they had always known so as much as I was able, I wanted to keep things semi-normal for them. They not only lost their brother, but they lost the parents they had always known as well. The death of a child changes you from the inside out. I honestly feel like I was thrown in a blender, chopped up, dumped out and somehow, had to figure how to put myself back together. I was encouraged by other bereaved mothers to be kind to myself and give myself grace, meaning, I could give the girls an enjoyable holiday season without “doing” all of the things we had done in past or putting out all the same decorations. The death of a child irrevocably alters the holidays forever. I am struggling terribly this year because his absence is more of a reality than it was last year. I’m once again dreading the expectations and obligations that the season brings, but I keep reminding myself that I made it through last year and I can do it again. The reality of our loss, and that it will always be this way, is very overwhelming.
As I thought on memories of past Thanksgivings and Christmases, my eyes and heart were flooded with sadness over what would no longer be. Last Thanksgiving, I worked hard at finding the balance between grief and gratitude. I realized then, more than ever, that I could be grateful even when my seventeen year old son wouldn’t be sitting at the dinner table with us. God was still good, even though our circumstances weren’t. I focused on the grace that had been shown our family day after day, and it filled my heart with immense gratitude. Dear friends of ours invited us to Thanksgiving at their house, so we went and enjoyed a meal with them and their family. Their invitation took the pressure off me to make a plan for the day, and it was incredibly helpful. The host was so thoughtful and had two lighted candles at our table, one for my dad and one for Caleb…which was very special to me.
This is a picture of a Mother’s Day card that Caleb gave me a few years ago. I had it sitting out during Thanksgiving last year because it reminded me to be thankful that Caleb knew he was loved and that he was thankful for everything and anything we did for him. When my mind drags me into August 12th, reminders like this help me to be grateful for the pure, authentic and loving relationship that Caleb and I shared..a bond that death will never break.
Even thinking about decorating the Christmas tree without Caleb brought me immense sadness and anxiety. Who was going to hang all of his special ornaments? I decided to invite Caleb’s friends over to help us decorate. I fed them pizza and they were more than happy to honor their friend by putting up his tree decorations. The guys enjoyed it and the girls had fun. It did our hearts a lot of good to have the house filled with boy noise for a few hours. Following are pictures of decor I put out to honor him in our home through the season…Candles are lit for grief, courage, memories, and love.
I wanted a visual and representation of my broken yet beautiful life on my Christmas tree, so I had an ornament throwing, crushing, destroying episode in my garage. I said last year, “Even though my heart is in a million tiny shattered pieces and I don’t know how they’ll ever fit back together, I know my life is still beautiful in many ways. Every piece and every crack of these broken ornaments makes me think of our love for Caleb…a love so deep, so strong, so durable, so enduring, so permanent and so lasting that it supersedes even death. This holiday season is brutal. It’s so hard to see Christmas trees, stockings, lights and happy family Christmas cards when my mind and my heart are still stuck in August trying to figure out what’s happened…”
The bulb that is holding all the tiny pieces together is a visual of my wonderful family and friends. I thought I knew how amazing they were before, but now I know it to be absolutely true and proven. They have been by my side since minute one of finding out that our Caleb was dead. My friends have really poured into me and supported me in every way imaginable. From holding me while I cry, scream, sob and get angry to reminding me that I’m never alone. They’ve reminded me everyday that God sees me, hears me and loves me and they speak truth about God’s goodness, mercy and grace. They’ve tried their best to answer my impossible questions and been humble enough to admit they don’t have the answers that I want to hear. They support me and help me through my unbearable waves of grief while speaking words of comfort and encouragement. I truly believe they are fulfilling their God given gifts and purposes by supporting me and my family through our terrible tragedy. I absolutely could not make it through the days without them. They’ve done all this for me while managing their own grief for themselves and their families.
My family is of Dutch heritage so we always celebrated Sinterklaasavond (St. Nicholas Eve) growing up, which is on the evening of December 5th. Children put their shoes by the front door and he comes in the night and fills them with goodies. It is my favorite childhood tradition and I loved passing it on to my kids. Thinking about only seeing two shoes by the door gave me so much anxiety and sadness and I didn’t think I could go through with it. I didn’t want to, but I realized that I absolutely could do it. It was not an easy choice, but it was the right choice for them. A friend of mine gladly went to Aldi and bought the goodies for me and that was super helpful. I did enjoy filling the shoes with goodies and even left a little something for our new puppy, Rocky. It was important to me to show the girls that just because Caleb wasn’t there, it didn’t mean the tradition was going to stop. I wanted them to experience the same traditions they always had, even if it was going to be sad.
Our Christmas morning was full of laughter, smiles, excitement, a few tears and lots of love. While our hearts were heavy and Caleb’s absence was stinging, we were able to be in the moment and enjoy opening gifts together. My family came to visit, which was a huge comfort. Notice how brightly the sun is shining through the windows, it made me smile and feel like Caleb was with us. After opening the gifts we went to the cemetery. Jordyn bought a gift for Caleb at her school’s holiday shop and she wanted to open it there. Her gift was so thoughtful and sweet…a little soccer ball and a bracelet that says “Brother.” We know he would have loved this gift and would have definitely worn the bracelet with pride. It made her feel so happy to give it to him and I was so grateful that she wanted to.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas I was trying to figure out some way to run away and hide from it all. I wanted to get away and pretend that it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to avoid the extra pain and heartache that it was causing me. It was so hard to see Christmas stuff when my heart was still stuck in the heat of August, but I knew that running away and avoiding it was not the answer. Our two sweet daughters deserved to celebrate the day just as they always had. We always took family photos in front of the tree before Christmas Eve service. This is something that may take me years to do again, and that’s okay! However long it takes doesn’t matter, but I do hope that one year I will be ready again. Here are pictures from our last Christmas as of family of five…
Because we have the hope of eternity in our hearts through Jesus, my focus wasn’t on what we were missing, but on what we have gained though faith and what we have to look forward to when he calls us home. God’s steadfast love has helped me endure this painful journey while holding one of my favorite verses close to my heart and mind “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12). Joy is the presence of God and the truth of joy is that because we love and trust our Lord and Savior, we will see Caleb again in Heaven. That is the best Christmas gift of all.
If you’re reading this and you will be enduring the first holiday season since your child died, my heart is with you and you are not alone. I grieve with you over the loss of your precious child. Be kind to yourself and whatever your’e able to do, if anything at all, is perfectly okay. No two people grieve the same, so what worked for me may not work for you. Please comment to let me know you were here, I would love to read about your child. If you have endured the holidays as a bereaved parent, please comment and share ways that you have found are healing, helpful and honoring through your season of grief.
November 13, 2022 – I honestly can’t believe it’s been 2 years since I wrote and shared this post. As I read through it, I realized how much my grief and sorrow as evolved and transformed every bit of who I am. Enduring the holiday season while grieving is incredibly difficult and downright devastating. I’ve noticed that no two seasons have been the same. What I want/am able to do one year, I have not been able to do the next. Being flexible with and kind to myself are things I’ve had to learn. I am still doing some of what I shared about here, but have also found new and different ways to honor, include and remember Caleb through the holidays.
How do you include your loved ones in your holidays? I’d love to hear from you!