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A Bereaved Parent’s Guide to the Holidays

Holidays2by Susan McKechnie, CKN Childhood Cancer Awareness and Advocacy Section Co-Editor

Whether you are a newly bereaved parent or one with a few years of ‘experience’ under your belt, the holidays are always tough.  People in general are full of holiday cheer, running around buying that perfect gift in anticipation of surprised, smiling faces opening them on Christmas morning. Those of us in the ‘experienced’ category remain wistful during the holiday season but have glimpses of hope and cheer. For parents still weighed down by the mire of grief, the holidays are an emotional rollercoaster that no-one who hasn’t been through it, can truly understand.


I remember those first few years clearly.  Shawn had passed away on October 1st, just before his third birthday, and the Christmas season was upon us before I felt like I took my first breath.  I still had my five year old daughter who anticipated Christmas with all her childish delight and I still had little boys to buy presents for, just not my own little boy.  Every time I saw something that I knew Shawn would have liked, I was tempted to buy it; little shirts that would have looked adorable on him, a truck that he would have loved to race around the house. I wanted to get him a gift and put it under the tree so he knew that we hadn’t forgotten about him. So he could see, from wherever he was that there was a present that said, “To Shawn with love from Mommy and Daddy”.  Because if I didn’t, would he think we had forgotten him? I stopped myself though. What would people think of me buying something for my dead child?  Then what? Buy him a present every year for the rest of time until I didn’t know what to do with them all?


One night, close to Christmas Eve, I decided to write him a letter. I told him how much he was missed, how much we loved him and placed the note in his stocking, hung beside everyone else’s. To acknowledge him as still being part of our family, without taking that step to the extreme, felt like the right thing to do.


Was this horrible empty feeling going to envelope us every holiday season from now on?


In retrospect, I wish I had done a few things differently and wanted to share some tips on getting through the holidays for those that are in those ‘fresh’ years of bereavement.


Manage Expectations of Yourself and Others


  • Don’t expect to do everything you have done in the past. If going to the mall is overwhelming, buy online or purchase gift cards. You may even want to ask a friend or family member to shop for you.
  • Communicate with those around you. Family and friends will understand your need to be low key.  If you need them to be low key as well, make sure you tell them that as they may feel the need to be overly generous during this time.
  • Don’t participate in family gatherings because you feel you have to. Take breaks as needed and ask for help when it comes to grocery shopping and meal planning.
  • Remember that people around you want to help and often don’t know how to.  Giving them small tasks that help you get through the holidays, will comfort them too.
  • If you have other children, be honest with them about how you feel.  Remember that, yes they are excited about the holidays, but they are also dealing with their own emotions and expectations and often feel guilty for feeling the joy of the season when everyone else if so obviously sad.
  • As strange as this sounds, be gentle with others and try to understand that they are just trying to help and acknowledge this journey you are going through.  Family and friends may do things you think are inappropriate but they are new to this experience as well.
  • Getting through the holidays may be more a matter of survival than participation and there is nothing wrong with that and no-one, especially you, should have any type of expectation otherwise.


Acknowledge Your Passed Child in Any Way You Want


  • If you want to buy your passed child a gift go right ahead – regardless of how you think people will feel about it. Buy them something for the next five years if that’s what you want to do.  Then when you are ready, donate those gifts to a child in need with a little note stating that they were purchased in memory of your child.
  • Purchase something that they would have loved and donate it to your local toy drive.
  • Create photo ornaments or a decoration that has their name on it. Each year as you hang it, you will be involving your passed child in your holiday tradition.
  • Like we do, write them a letter and place it in their holiday stocking. Each year read the letters as part of your new holiday tradition.
  • Talk about your child as much or as little as you want to and others will follow suit. Remember that others will be afraid to bring up your passed child in conversation and will only do so if you do.


Allow Yourself to Feel


  • Allow yourself to feel the wave of emotions that are bound to hit at various times not just over the holidays, but as you move through your journey of grief. Sadness, anger and loneliness are all appropriate feelings and acknowledge the intense love you have for your child.
  • As time passes, happiness will make its way back in to your life. So will guilt. Allow yourself to feel these emotions as well. Happiness and joy is what connects us but it’s very easy to feel guilty about being alive and the need to love and be loved.
  • The joy displayed in others over the holiday season can be very frustrating to those whose hearts are heavy.  If the thought of Christmas is just too overwhelming, don’t be afraid to skip it all together if possible. Many newly bereaved families take a vacation over the holidays so they don’t have to face a Christmas without their lost child.  Keeping in mind that this too can be a difficult thing.
  • Many churches or bereavement groups hold special sessions over the holidays to help those at a loss of how to cope at this time of year. Nothing beats talking to someone whose experienced something similar and truly understands.


This will be our 7th Christmas without Shawn. I can’t believe how quickly time has passed but do remember thinking, while wading in the mud of despair, that it was passing so slowly.  For me, I can honestly say that it wasn’t until our 3rd Christmas without him that I experienced a glimpse of holiday joy again. Although grief never ends, it does soften and I know that Shawn is with us in his own way at Christmas time and remains in my thoughts and heart each and every day.  There is enormous peace in that for me.


Whatever you do this Christmas to help you get through the holiday season without your child, remember that there is no right or wrong, there are no expectations and no-one has a right to tell you otherwise.  What matters is that you are able to do whatever feels right for you, and eventually be able to carry the loving memory of your child with you into future Christmas-times.






SueMcKechnieSue McKechnie learned her young son, Shawn had a brain tumour in May of 2006. When he passed away 18 months later after the rollercoaster of diagnosis, treatment, hope and terminal illness, she realized that even though he was gone from this world, he continued to send her courage from another.  The message was clear – get out there and help other families sharing this journey. Since then Sue has written the book ‘A Sippy Cup of Chemo; A Family’s Journey Through Childhood Cancer’ hoping to spread the message to other bereaved families that they are not alone. “It’s wonderful to talk to other parents who truly understand – the grief, the guilt and all the myriad of emotions you face. We didn’t choose to be part of this group, nor would we wish it upon anyone else but here we are and we need to support each other.”  All the proceeds from her book are donated to Meagan’s Walk; benefitting brain tumour research at SickKids Hospital, a charitable organization whose committee Sue is a member of.  Sue continues to advocate for funding and awareness of childhood cancer through blogging, speaking engagements and her work through Meagan’s Walk.


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2 Responses to A Bereaved Parent’s Guide to the Holidays

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Kevin says:

    Great article. This is our second Christmas without Keanan. He was 21 months old so the joy of Christmas is not there. We chose to donate his organs and he saved three people. This holiday season, we will be honouring Keanan by writing those recipients.

    Christmas and other holidays are brutal. Articles like this help guide us.

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