Traditions carried out in the soft glow of Christmas tree lights are endowed with a sacredness that others cannot attain.
As a young mother, one of my greatest joys was creating Christmas traditions with my sons. Navigating the dual minefields of single parenthood and teaching in a low-income public school put a special shine on those two weeks off at the end of the year. Contentment won out over stress as I ate dinner on a TV tray with my boys, who watched the Grinch’s antics with rapt attention.
We’d unfold my old cutting board in front of the paper log burning in the fireplace (the only fire I knew how to build) and put together a Rudolph or Frosty the Snowman puzzle, then preserve it with puzzle glue. When it came out of storage the following year, brittle and bowed, we’d admire our accomplishment, and declare that this year we’d up our game from 500 to 1,000 pieces.
Right before bedtime on Christmas Eve, the boys opened one gift, a new set of pajamas. These morphed from Superman pj’s with Velcro-attached capes to robes or slippers as they grew, but they always had something new to wear for Christmas morning pictures.
The big day happened in two stages: tree presents and stocking presents. We unwrapped tree presents first, taking turns and exclaiming over each gift. We’d take a breather over orange rolls, then repeat the process with stocking gifts. All told, we stretched out opening presents until two in the afternoon.
Traditions carried out in the soft glow of Christmas tree lights are endowed with a sacredness that others cannot attain. The joy of the season and the joy of togetherness combine to renew the hope that life can be more than the drudgery of making ends meet. The promise of Christmas, more than just two weeks off, sustained me through the daunting years of single motherhood.
Then in 2010 my son Will was killed in an accident. He was my firstborn, the one who gave me the best day of my life when he entered the world, and the worst day when he left it. Mere existence became a burden. The thought of celebrating anything was abhorrent.
But Christmas inevitably came. While I preferred to ignore it, I went through the motions for my younger son. My family and friends handled the situation with grace and tenderness, but Will’s absence screamed through my bloodstream with each beat of my heart.
Bitter experience taught me what made the situation worse, and what helped me through it. If you know a bereaved parent, here are five gifts you can give them this Christmas.
- A conversation about their child. The mention of a deceased child’s name won’t remind his parents that he is gone. His absence is the musical score of their lives, playing on an endless loop. You can’t make bereaved parents sad by talking about their loss. They’re already sad. Their biggest fear is that the world will forget their child existed. Hearing his name on other people’s lips is a priceless gift.
- A place for their child in the celebration. Hang his stocking with everyone else’s, but don’t leave it empty. Set aside a time for loved ones to write him a note and slip it inside. Wrap a special ornament for him, and when others are opening their gifts, pull it out and hang it in a prominent place on the tree. Sip cocoa while you watch his favorite animated or stop-motion Christmas special.
- A gift in their child’s name. Donate to a local food pantry. Give a brood of chickens to an impoverished family in South America. Place Bibles in hotel rooms for weary travelers. International and domestic charities will send cards to the family to let them know how your gift is being used to alleviate suffering. For the mother or father who wonders what their child would have become, it’s a way of letting him make a positive impact on the world when he lost the chance to do it himself.
- Space. The first Christmas after the death of a child is excruciating. A casual get-together becomes a torturous ordeal. Listening to friends’ lighthearted conversations about their plans for the upcoming year is like a wire brush on an open wound. Playing Dirty Santa or racing a coworker to unwrap gifts while wearing oven mitts is not something a bereaved parent is capable of. Invite, but don’t pressure. Offer to bring coffee and conversation to them. At family gatherings, let them set the pace for their participation. Sometimes being adjacent to, but not involved in the celebration is enough.
- Understanding that you don’t understand. Don’t tell a bereaved parent, “I know how you feel.” Unless you’ve buried your own child, you don’t. It belittles someone’s unspeakable tragedy to say that you do. You might imagine how awful it would feel, but you can shake it off and go hug your child. Also, please understand that losing a parent does not create solidarity with someone who has lost a child. There is an order to things, and parents are expected to go first. When a mother or father outlives their child, the world no longer makes sense. Don’t compare the loss of an older relative to the loss of a child. Rather, offer a bereaved parent the promise of “Whatever you need.” It may mean taking their other children Christmas shopping, or decorating the tree because they don’t have the energy to do it themselves. Even if they don’t take you up on it, the offer means the world.
Christmas will never be the same for a parent who has lost a child. Eight Christmases after Will’s death, I still approach the season with a mixture of excitement and dread. I’m blessed with family and friends who are sensitive to this, and every year offer me all the gifts listed above. Give one of these gifts to a grieving parent this Christmas. It will take time, but you can bring a little of the joy of the season back to them.