Handling heartache during the festive season: When hello means goodbye

Reading time: 12 min

“On the day our baby was stillborn, we had to say hello and goodbye to her on the same day. It was especially hard as it happened just before Christmas. People think of Christmas as being a magical loving time, but after our baby’s death it was anything but that and I didn’t feel ‘festive’ at all.” (Penelope, mother of Chris, stillborn at 40 weeks)

Coping during the festive season

Because you had to say goodbye to your baby you may feel that you will not be able to get through the holidays, but remember that the very traditions of the holidays can help you endure them! Try partaking in a few of your normal holiday traditions while still incorporating and acknowledging your grief.

When you put up Christmas lights or you light a candle, for instance, do it in honour of your baby. You don’t necessarily have to make this fact known, but it may help you handle these small tasks that are so familiar with the festive season. Even when you sing songs and it brings a lump to your throat, allow yourself to feel the emotion inside of you.

You may not want to do anything at all and that is understandable, but it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing situation. If you feel that you can only cope with some of the traditions of the holiday season, scale down and only incorporate the ones that are most important to you in your rituals.

Sarah (mother to Clifton who was stillborn at 34 weeks) says, “Mike and I made a list of the most important family traditions and we narrowed it down by marking those that we felt were indispensable. We only did those, and it really helped!”

This helps you create a ‘middle ground’ by affording you the opportunity to grieve, while still holding onto traditions that are dear to you and your partner. Again, you don’t have to discuss this ‘deal’ you made with yourselves, it’s totally up to you.

Sarah says, “We were very nervous about making it through the holiday season without Clifton, so we ‘rewarded’ ourselves with a mini-breakaway after the holidays to help alleviate some of the stress. Having something to look forward to gave us the strength we needed to get through the festive season.”

Communicate your feelings regarding the holidays with friends and family. Nicky is the mother of Oliver, stillborn at 38 weeks. She says, “I think it’s my family that scares me the most at this time … scared of how they will treat me, will they say anything or won’t they? And how will I handle it if they do? More so, how will I deal with it if they don’t say anything and then I think that they’ve forgotten our little boy? I am just so nervous about this whole situation!”

Your loved one might not know how to talk about your baby loss and the holidays. Sarah says, “If you don’t communicate your wishes, e.g. ‘I do not wish to celebrate Christmas at all this year’ or ‘Please can we just carry on with our holiday season celebrations the way we used to’, you can’t expect the people around you to know what your feelings are. Reach out to them and tell them how you feel so that they know it’s okay to raise the subject with you.” Although this may be hard for you to do, it will be even harder to deal with your emotions if they react in a way that hurts your feelings or even offends you.

“My best friend bought us a beautiful tree that we planted in honour of Chris. This was such a meaningful way to remember and celebrate him!”

Also, remember that sometimes well-intended but misinformed friends will hurt you unknowingly with their words, but try to not let it get to you. They honestly mean well, they just don’t know what to say. Because of the fear of this, a lot of times parents choose to be alone during the holidays. That is fine – just keep in mind that you also need to embrace the love and support of family and loved ones to help you heal, no matter whether they put their foot in it or not!

Your whole experience of the festive season itself has changed forever simply because of the loss that you have suffered. Penelope explains, “I went from getting a lot of pleasure from preparing for the holidays to absolutely dreading them. I used to be the family’s main holiday chef and after Chris’s death, I could hardly eat, let alone prepare food for others.”

It may not be the same this festive season, simply because you are not the same person anymore. It is not your fault and it is not because you are doing something wrong. It is a loss and it’s going to transform your life experiences and it is inevitable.

Tips handling heartache during the festive season:

  1. Switch your phone off and say no. It’s really ok.
  2. Get outside help for things like cleaning the house and maintaining your garden. Give yourself time to heal and just to be amid the craziness of the ‘silly ‘season.
  3. You are allowed to cry and if it makes others around you uncomfortable, it is their problem, not yours. It’s ok to laugh too! Don’t feel guilty; you have the right to work through every single emotion you feel whether that’s sadness or joy.
  4. Remember if you have other children, they will probably also think of the sibling they lost during this time. Try to incorporate their baby brother or sister into celebrations by wrapping a special gift for the baby made up of drawings that they drew. If they are older, they can write letters to the baby and put it in the stocking. You can also make a special Christmas ornament with some mementoes from their sibling inside.
  5. You may want to do something in memory of your baby, such as donating to your favourite charity in your child’s name, lighting a special candle or planting a tree. In this way, your baby is “included” with the rest of the children in the festivities associated with the holiday.
  6. Doing something for someone else will make you feel better, even if it’s something small. You can start a new tradition by giving a gift in the name of the baby you have lost for instance. Or you can take some Christmas goodies to an old-age home near you.
  7. Go do Christmas shopping! This involves getting up, getting dressed and going out to the shops and sometimes forcing yourself to do this will help you feel a whole lot better just because you are ‘anonymous’ among all the holiday shoppers! If you really aren’t up to doing this, shop online. But retail therapy often helps.
  8. Don’t be hard on yourself and don’t expect too much of yourself or your partner. Self-care and having compassion for yourself and each other, are of critical importance during this time.
  9. Say your baby’s name! This lets your friends and family know that they can use it too. Talk about the hopes and wishes you had for your baby and encourage your loved ones to use your baby’s name and talk about them with you. There is healing in sharing!
  10. It is very important to eat well and rest well during the festive season. Eating too many rich or unhealthy foods during the holidays will leave you fatigued and drained. Drink enough water, eat fresh fruit and veggies and remember to sleep when you are tired. You need time for yourself now more than ever before and you need to practise self-care without feeling guilty about it.

The festive season is hard because it forces us to confront our pain and sadness. You are allowed to mourn but you are also allowed to get well again. Believe in our wonderful ability to heal and evolve through the grief and mourning process. Even if it seems that your pain will never get better, acknowledge that there is room for it to change and focus on all the positive things in life.

As a practical exercise, you can write a letter to yourself about your hopes and aspirations for the next holiday season and store it with your holiday decorations. You can even start a gratitude journal to help with emotional healing. Make a conscious decision that your next festive season will be different in a good way!

For friends helping parents cope who had to say hello and goodbye to their baby:

“The festive season is horrible for us. I wish you could tell us that you are thinking about our child on these days, and if we get quiet and withdrawn, just know that we are thinking about our child too – and it breaks our hearts,” says Cathy, who lost her baby Chloë at 40 weeks.

Good things to acknowledge to bereaved parents or give them ‘permission’ for:

  1. They are a mother or father and always will be. They have a right to claim that role and identity.
  2. If they haven’t already, they are allowed to name and acknowledge their baby regardless of how early in pregnancy the baby may have died. Often, the least and the greatest need of parents is just to talk about the baby and the loss. Repeated retelling of the experience helps them to master it. Be available to listen without feeling you must do something or to say anything.
  3. There is no ‘right way’ to grieve. There is also no wrong way.
  4. It’s okay to set boundaries or let go of people who cannot or does not how to support bereaved parents as they need in their grief process.
  5. Encourage couples to attend a support group. This can allow them to really know that they are far from alone in this type of loss. A support group can help them to feel less isolated throughout their entire grief journey and especially during the festive season. Support groups can be of great comfort to the grieving parents by allowing them to simply be surrounded by others who truly know some of what they are going through, to be with people who get them.
  6. Remember, you cannot cure the pain they are going through or make things better, all that you can do is let the parents know you care about them and you care about their baby and that you will always be there for them.

Gift ideas for parents who said hello and goodbye to their baby

  1. Bring a homemade meal or a freezer meal for later. If you don’t cook or don’t have time, a pizza delivered to their home is just as good. Nicky says, “My friend sent us a gift card for a family meal. This simple gesture was so welcome and so appreciated!”
  2. Miscarriage jewellery: There are various types of miscarriage and pregnancy loss-related jewellery, ranging from angel necklaces to footprint earrings. Buy a personalised piece of jewellery engraved with the child’s name. Cathy says her mom had Chloë’s name etched onto angel wings and she wears this piece of jewellery almost every day. For moms who have lost twins or triplets, a beautiful gift is sets of two or three entwined rings engraved with each baby’s name.
  3. A memory box for the parents to keep a few precious things about their baby. You can also give them a personally decorated memory box.
  4. Have a handkerchief embroidered with the child’s name to ‘catch her tears’ for her precious child.
  5. A memorial candle and angel with the child’s birthstone.
  6. Books about coping with pregnancy loss: One long-time favourite, particularly for women who have had a stillbirth or other late pregnancy loss, is When hello means goodbye by Ilse Cherokee.
  7. A voucher for a massage, manicure or facial is always welcome.
  8. An environmentally friendly idea is to give the gift of life by giving bereaved parents a plant or tree. Penelope explains, “My best friend bought us a beautiful tree that we planted in honour of Chris. This was such a meaningful way to remember and celebrate him!”

The festive season will be a time of mixed emotions. Managing the grief of losing your child while everyone around you is celebrating the season can be a real challenge and may seem terribly unfair to you. Accept that your grief is normal and reasonable and allow yourself to feel anger, regret and sadness, but also feel joy and happiness. Only attend events where you feel comfortable. If you feel it is too difficult to join in on the day, do not force yourself – the most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to say no and excuse yourself.

However, don’t presume that the festive season is going to be horrible. You have just said hello and goodbye to your baby and of course, you will be sad and mourn your loss. But allow yourself to also have moments of happiness and hope to also give you a sense of your life’s purpose.

Helen Keller once said, “The only way to the other side is through.” Sometimes this is the only way to cope with the festive season when you had to say goodbye to your baby.

Also read:

Course-correcting infant trauma through therapy
The dos and don’ts of supporting women after a miscarriage