Welcome to Day Seven of the All That Love Can Do 12 Days of Christmas! You can read all about this online event HERE. If you'd like to catch up on all the posts from this event, you can find them HERE.
Facing the holidays without your baby, or when you know your baby's life is going to be short, is overwhelmingly hard. Please, above all else, be gentle with yourself.
If you'd like to connect with other loss families facing the holidays without their children, you can join the private group on Facebook, HERE.
We hope you find peace and healing in the days to come <3.
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Day Seven: Finding your way through Christmas one breath at a time.
From the heart of a grandparent on the death of her grandbaby and facing the holidays.
by MaryJo Carlson
Christmas was my absolute favorite holiday - that is until November 28, 2011. On that day our lives took a tragic turn when our daughter called to tell us our little grandbaby that her and her husband were expecting would not live. Heartbreak doesn’t even begin to touch the feelings that we had.
We walked by faith, not by sight through that first Christmas. It was the only Christmas we would have with our grandson Samuel Evan as our daughter carried him to birth with so much love. We didn't even know if he would live through that year. We gathered together as a family and tried to make memories that would last a lifetime.
We continued to make memories until April 14, 2012 when we met our beautiful little guy face to face. Samuel Evan had already stolen our hearts completely and now we shared those sacred moments of saying hello and goodbye to our sweet grandbaby.
What does a journey look like that goes from saying goodbye to a very much wanted, very much loved grandbaby and turns into a grief that is uniquely mine? You are who you were made to be and I believe that shapes how you grieve. There are similarities that we can each relate to but there are differences as well. Samuel’s worth is why we grieve and why I do what I do to live each day carrying him in my heart instead of my arms. It quickly became apparent that this grandparent’s grief would be the loneliest and most tragic road I have ever traveled. I was amazed how few people even bothered to say how sorry they were to us. To watch my daughter grieve and not be able to do much of anything to help her affected me to the core of my being. Not only was I grieving the loss of precious Samuel, but I was also grieving the loss of my daughter. Where was she, what happened to her? She was desperately wanting her son and drowning in her and her husband’s grief.
She only had room for their grief. At first that was painful but I quickly learned to keep to myself what I was feeling. She saw my tears but didn’t hear my thoughts and questions; they were too much for her to add to her pain. And on top of it were the people who didn’t have a clue what this is like and thought we should quickly be over this loss and return to our past life. I can confidently say I will never be the same. I am learning to live with my grief and the sadness of losing Samuel but the grief remains just below the surface and easily returns with little warning.
What you will get from me is pure honesty about my first Christmas of grief; It was horribly and terribly painful. I could not and did not do any shopping in stores. I tried but couldn’t handle the sights and sounds of the season. We did not put up a tree, we did not get together as a family (our daughter had already told us they could not find it within themselves to get together and we totally understood) and we did not want to celebrate as our hearts were completely broken. I could not handle the Christmas music as all it did was add to my pain. We managed to put up Christmas lights outside our home that first Christmas, just for Samuel. We wanted to light up our home to let him know we loved him and missed him. I ordered some remembrance items online for our daughter to show her how much we loved Samuel and missed him terribly. We set up a special table in our living room with many treasures that remind us of him and we have his pictures proudly displayed there. The questions of "why" played frequently and repeatedly in my head that first year and well into the second.
On Words ~ some of the most painful parts of Christmas are the words. The words surrounding Christmas are "Wonderful, cheery and happy." Words that mean nothing when our life is loaded with pain and grief the first year after the death of our babies/grandbabies. We have all read them, sent them in messages, or said them before our life changed with the death of our child/grandchild; they are the holiday greetings. We now struggle to face them because trying to live after the death of your baby/grandbaby is extremely difficult; the absolute most difficult thing you will ever do in your life! The death of a child/grandchild is really raw, horrifically nagging at most times or it is just below the surface at all times. In fact for us coming up on our 3rd Christmas without Samuel that is where it now lives, just below the surface.
We are permanently changed people because our very much wanted, very much loved and very much missed little boy is not here to live with us on earth. And those who haven’t experienced this do not understand. For them life goes on and they want the old you back but that will never happen. This loss has changed us forever. We have taken on a new understanding of love and loss and compassion. We are learning to light a path for those who are walking a similar road. Our new family is those who understand and support each other through our grief journey.
What can I possibly say to help you through this Christmas? I want to meet each of you where you are at today in your grief and give you permission to be exactly where you are in your story of love and loss. I want to give you the gift of permission to not feel any expectation to do otherwise this Christmas and every Christmas to come. You owe it to yourself to just be where you are at on your journey of grief. And where you are at may mean you no longer -or at least for this year - participate in the normal festivities of Christmas.
If you are a grieving parent/grandparent you don’t have to grant anyone their wishes for a happy holiday. If you have other children/grandchildren in your family they will be all the better for having a Christmas of dealing with grief honestly and openly than pretending everyone is fine. You are teaching them a great life lesson in that death happens and when it happens hearts are broken and life changes. Find small things to do to make the day meaningful and forget the big stuff.
Please know that this is hard work and there is no strong or right or wrong. I have read it so many times, “oh she/he is so strong" and then the person goes on to share what they think was strong about someone’s handling of grief. How do you think that makes the person who couldn’t do/say what that person did feel? That’s right they feel inadequate, bad about themselves for not being ‘strong’, they feel horrible and that adds to their grief. We are all strong, as we continue to live each minute without our little loves. We are each uniquely created and that uniqueness is what makes up how we grieve. Add to our character the journey of life we have been through before our loss; all our experiences as well as our beliefs, all of this combines to makeup how we grieve. When the death of a baby happens we are trying to make sense of it through our filter of life up to this point. So many people want to keep that filter intact and therefore try to form their grief through that filter. My permission to you is to let grief do its work in you by allowing those filters to fail or fall away if they need to and learn to live this new life where grief is a companion for the rest of your life. It will change and look different as time goes along but it will always be with you.
Things you might want to do this Christmas.
* Write a letter to your baby/grandbaby – keep writing letters as often as you need and want to.
* Create something beautiful for them such as drawing, an ornament, a snowman, a song, a poet; find that beautiful something that flows out of your heart. I am absolutely amazed the creativity that has come out of the babyloss world.
* Go shopping (if you are able to handle it or find something on-line) and buy them a gift; something that you would have liked to buy them if they were here. This is not wasted money but rather a healing adventure.
* Create a special place for your baby/grandbaby. Our daughter and son-in-law have a special table for Samuel. They change it according to season or holiday. We enjoy buying special things to add to Samuel’s table. We have one at our house as well. I pause many times a day and have my Samuel time at our special spot.
* Buy a gift for someone less fortunate than you in honor of your baby/grandbaby.
* Give money to a charity in your baby/grandbaby’s name. Many babyloss families start a charity of their own.
* Connect with another babyloss person and exchange gifts with them. I did this my first Christmas after Samuel passed away and it was so healing to my heart to know there was another grandma out there missing her grandson as well.
* Attend a special service for those who have experienced a death in the family. Our church holds a Missing Chair service every year. The tears flow freely at this service just like so many others and you are among those who understand. Our grandson has a memorial brick at the Angel of Hope statue in our area and they hold a candlelight memorial each year. We attended last night and spent time remembering and missing our special little guy.
The Angel of Hope statue, covered in flowers left in memory of children gone too soon.
Samuel's Stone <3
(You can learn more about Angel of Hope statues by googling "Angel of Hope" and the name of your city/state.)
Remember, you don't need to try and pretend you are ok or strong. I especially hear this from so many grandparents who feel they have to be the strong person in the story of love and loss. You are recovering from the biggest wound possible, a broken heart and unfulfilled dreams of having a baby/grandbaby to nurture and love and watch them grow. So take care of your heart by letting grief come and come and come. How you do this is one moment at a time. You are an amazing parent/grandparent. You are doing everything humanly possible to keep their memory alive and to love them for afar.
We are on a journey together but individually as well. In our early days of grief the world moves on while we are in the depth of sadness trying to make it one minute at a time. One very important part of the journey of grief that is so very hard is the aspect of
feeling all alone. What has helped me more than anything is the community of babyloss families. I have read so very many of your stories. I have cried with you and for you. I have learned so much from all of you. You have helped me in my grief and helped me to try and understand my daughter’s grief by sharing yours as well. Thank you for being my light in the darkest days and moments. By sharing your story you are sharing your light on my path of realizing I am not alone. If we didn't have our baby’s story we wouldn't have had them and that is something I can find to be truly grateful for. We are missing them every moment and together we are finding ways to love them from afar.
This year for Christmas we are going to be lighting the outside of our home with traditional luminaries. We will line our driveway and walkway to our front door with them. I have also made a glass luminary for our home in honor and memory of Samuel. Last year I wrote a post for the 12 Days of Christmas that may help you as well with how to handle the holidays. You can read it here. I also facilitate All That Love Can Do for Grandparents. It is a private group for grandparents who are grieving the death of a grandchild for any reason or who have a grandbaby being carried to birth after a fatal diagnosis. All loss grandparents are welcome! You can ask to join HERE (please note: you'll be sent a private message before being added. It may go to your "Other" inbox)
I asked those in the group who have survived one or more Christmas’ to share their thoughts on it, here is what they said:
~I am continually reminded of the depth of my daughter’s grief. And just how important it is for me to acknowledge her feelings.
~The first Hanukkah following our grandson Jonah’s death I was in shopping, buying some Hanukkah decorations for my mother because she had some mild dementia and poor vision. I was looking at things for children as they might be big and bright. Another woman around my age assumed I must have been buying for grandchildren, like she was, and commented to me about how much fun it was to shop during the holidays for the grandkids. I felt like I had been punched in the gut and wanted to burst into tears or shout out that MY grandchild was DEAD and I was shopping for my 95 year old mother who was nearly BLIND and had DEMENTIA. I couldn't say a word and just nodded, fighting back the tears until I got to the car. My throat throbbed with the lump of unspoken words and the lack of acknowledging my grandson, as if I was keeping him a secret. I have since learned that, for me, it is now better to calmly speak up and have found ways of doing so about having a grandbaby who died that doesn't freak others out. I couldn't the first year. It is OK to not mention them and it is OK to do so. Both approaches are difficult because having a grandchild who died is what is difficult. Period!! We need to not make it even harder. My advice is to do what you need to, at the time. Maybe next time it will be different. Grief is a process and a journey. There will be both expected triggers and others that throw you completely off guard. I cried a lot and easily that first year. I also was numb a lot and felt frozen often and then spent time alone unthawing and processing the pain, when and where it was safe to do so for me. Give yourself the time. When trying to plan how to get through the holidays we had decided to donate to other children since we have no other grandchildren and to call it ‘Jonah's Gifts’ That first winter, I was driving to Connecticut. As I drove right past Newtown, CT I heard on the radio about the Sandy Hook Massacre that was happening right then. I pulled over to let many tears flow, thinking of the children and their parents, grandparents, siblings, and families. That was when I decided what to do with ‘Jonah's Gifts’ that first Hanukkah. But there were so many children and families. The dilemma was how to choose since we are not wealthy. Soon after I read that the youngest victim had a twin sister in the classroom and that she survived by hiding in a closet. We donated to that particular family. Every year for the winter holidays and for Jonah's birthday we do ‘Jonah's Gifts’. It is an outlet for my heart that helps others and helps me stay calm - too much grief bottled up inside is not healthy. The grief keeps filling up my heart and donating is like letting some of it out to make room for more. And it makes room for love, because love can come, too. It is because we love that there is grief. Lives here on earth may end, but the love doesn't ever go away. So sharing love
connects me to my grandson, Jonah. I think it is particularly painful to have any holiday when that time of year is when the loss occurred. For me it is Mother's Day. I became a grandma the day before Mother's Day and lost my only grandchild the day after. Jonah's first birthday was on Mother's Day. I suggest careful planning for any painful days. This last Mother's Day I wanted so badly something I never had gotten - a card for a Grandma on Mother's Day. I asked my husband if he would buy me one. He got me the most beautiful meaningful card, wishing me, as a Grandma, a Happy Mother's Day. It is ok and a good idea to try to figure out what you need, and to ask for it. This Hanukkah I want to bring a tiny menorah to leave at Jonah's grave. Maybe we will bring regular sized ones and light them there.
~This Christmas will be the 6th.... without our sweet granddaughter, Chloe. The best thing we have done for every first and every holiday is to make Chloe a part of it. To have her not forgotten. Whether it be buying an ornament each year for a memory, sending up balloons to heaven, donating for a cause in her honor, or lighting a candle. Nothing to me eases the sorrow when I see others rejoicing over their grandchildren's gifts and excitement but remembering is vital. I don't want her to be forgotten. Nor do I want my daughter to feel we have forgotten. We buy greeting cards and sign Chole's name to them and give them to her mommy. We buy at least one gift that reminds us of her to give to her mommy so that she is always included. The firsts are very painful. It's ok to cry, to pray, to expect raw emotion. The first year we received gifts that broke us, which made us cry but looking at them now, I am ever so grateful that we have them. Ornaments, jewelry, books, poems. They all bring her into our home. As much as we wish we could visit heaven, her memory visits us.
~I love the idea of giving on behalf of our angels. Honoring their memory is such a positive diversion of the grief. My daughter and son-in-law (and I) gained so much knowing that that my grandson Harvey's viable organ & tissue donations gave other families a chance for a healthier, happier & more productive life. To know someone has been spared loss, suffering and disability is a great comfort to us. We had a family & friends' team for the March of Dimes walk which happened to fall the day before his 1st birthday. I trust we will find ways to continue this legacy of "Harvey the Hero" as the years go by. I have also made a point of calling my daughter or sending a note or posting on Facebook on the monthly anniversaries of Harvey's birth & death; I know it has meant a lot to her. Knowing that you are not alone in remembering is very important, especially as time goes on and fewer people do. I also send my granddaughter (Harvey’s sister) gifts at other than special days (birthday, holidays, etc.) to give her a boost. So sometimes I include something for Harvey and if appropriate, I ask her to do put it on Harvey's altar or give her mother a hug or some action on Harvey's behalf.
~After my granddaughter Hannah died, our family holiday get-togethers shrank to fit what we needed most: just me and my kids together. Some of my extended family didn't really understand (as no one can). Relationships have become more strained, not unusual after a tragic loss. But the kids know what they can handle, and they are most important to me. It is hard. Now after 3-1/2 years, my son and DIL continue to reduce holidays to a much more private time, unable to share with the extended family. I support them, but miss the chaotic happier times before Hannah died.
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MaryJo Carlson and her husband David have five children. Their oldest daughter is RaeAnne Fredrickson who started All That Love Can Do in memory of her beautiful son Samuel Evan. MaryJo is a stay at home mom and grandma who now spends her time finding ways to bring light and encouragement to others who have had to say goodbye to their precious grandbabies way too soon.