Coping with Christmas after the death of a child

‘Is it normal for the bereaved to feel they want to ‘cancel’ Christmas?’

Christmas is a lonely time for bereaved parents who often find the run-up to the day, with all the accompanying anticipation, more difficult than the day itself. Whether it’s the first year without a child or several years after the bereavement, the festivities are in contradiction with how bereft parents are feeling. Siblings, of course, feel the loss too, with the enormous gap left by the death of a child intensifying at this time of the year.

First Light, formerly the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association, which has been in existence for 35 years, offers professional support and information to parents and families who have lost a child or young person. It deals with many questions from families, such as: is it normal for the bereaved to feel they want to "cancel" Christmas? Do you decorate the tree, send cards, give gifts, go to a party?

Ger O’Brien, head of bereavement support, says she and her colleagues at the charity receive notifications from hospitals and GPs who are concerned about bereaved parents. “For parents to know they’re not on their own is a big thing.”

The pain of losing a child “never goes away but it lessens in intensity. For the first few years, it’s horrendous because it changes from hour to hour. People say time heals but it doesn’t really. What it does is teaches you to live with it. You learn how to accommodate your grief.”

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For the other children in the family, Christmas is expected to be celebrated. “We always encourage parents to talk about the child who

died and to do something like buy a decoration for the tree in their memory. You have to put on a mask for the other children. With children, grief comes and goes. One minute they can be playing and the next minute they can be sobbing.”

When The Late Late Toy Show was on television recently, Nuala English found herself wondering if her late son, Fionn, would have been interested in it. Twelve years ago, Fionn died at home unexpectedly from meningitis a few days before his first birthday. He would have turned 13 in November.

English, who also has a nine-year-old son called Darragh, always thinks in terms of what Fionn would be doing. Christmas, she says, “is an extremely challenging time. I cope in a number of ways. I get support from my mother and four sisters and my friends, particularly Emer. The coping element is all about being able to talk about Fionn and how I’m feeling, knowing I’m not alone.”

English is now on the board of First Light and does voluntary bereavement support work. “I’ve started training in the Cork counselling service and I hope to become a counsellor. Fionn’s death led me down this path. First Light helped me to come to terms with the fact that Fionn wasn’t coming back. But it took years to rebuild my life.”

This is the second Christmas that Ali Boyne will be without Bobby G who died, aged 2½ in March 2014 following an undetected ulcer and a bleed in his stomach. Boyne is also mother to 10-year-old Erin and three-year-old Archie.

She says she can’t remember last Christmas. “I couldn’t even say what the kids got from Santa. This year, I’m trying to keep up the spirits for the two of them. I have Christmas FM on the radio in the car and I talk about Santa and try to bring Bobby G into the conversation as well. We have a bauble for the Christmas tree with his picture in it.”

Having split from her partner, Boyne and her children are living with her mother. “I have fantastic support but I’m still afraid to talk about what happened.”

The new year is harder for her than Christmas. “I feel I’m growing further away from my son, leaving him in the past. It’s coming up to two years since he died. Sometimes, I wonder did it really happen or am I just dreaming.”

Paul Dowling and his wife, Pamela, lost one of their three daughters in 2012. Colette was

23 years old when she died from complications relating to cystic fibrosis. Paul, who works as a civil servant, says his eldest daughter inspired everyone, including her sisters, Grace (24) and Paula (20).

“Colette was an inspiration and an example to us all in how she dealt with and bore her CF,” he says.

“After her Leaving Cert she went to Trinity and studied occupational therapy. It was always a debate about whether she would study art or something in medicine, but the medicine won. She loved her studies, particularly placements with the elderly and with children.”

Although she had been sick, Paul says her death was shocking. “In many ways her death was sudden, because this was not part of the plan and she always had a plan,” he says.

The family received support from Anam Cara where they felt they were able to talk to others who knew exactly how they were feeling. The non-profit organisation offers professional help for anyone finding it difficult to come to terms with the passing of someone close to them.

“Some people didn’t understand us at all but the very first time we walked into an Anam Cara meeting we just knew immediately that these people ‘got it’,” he says.

“It’s like you are climbing a mountain and there are people ahead of you with outstretched hands saying, ‘Come on you can do it.’ Then you realise you are climbing and you look behind and see others who are at the bottom and you say to them, ‘Yes I was there and it was awful, but look, I am up here now, come on.’

“I would encourage anyone who has been bereaved to ask family for help and don’t let others tell you how you should feel, you are where you are,” he says.

COPING WITH CHRISTMAS

- Light a special candle to burn on Christmas Day in memory of your child or loved one.

-Make or buy a special decoration to hang on the tree in their memory.

- Some bereaved parents buy a small gift for the age their child would be and donate it to charity. - Visiting the grave can help to remember the child.

- Plan your time so that you are under as little stress as possible. Plan your ‘escape’ if need be. Don’t over-commit. Rehearse a simple explanation of why you may not attend a function.

- Share the memories with someone, by telling stories and looking at photographs.

- If you have young children in the family, be aware they might wish for Christmas to carry on as before. While this can be very painful for you, living through the normality of seasonal celebrations can be a comfort.

- New Year’s Eve celebrations can also be difficult. Acknowledge your feelings to yourself and to those close to you and spend New Year’s Eve with close, understanding family and friends who will allow you to be yourself and remember your child.

First Light: 1850 391 391 or 087 242 3777. firstlight.ie

During December, Anam Cara is running bag-packing fundraisers. To find out more about the charity, visit anamcara.ie