Annie Lane: Navigating grief this holiday season

Published 4:55 pm Friday, December 23, 2022

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Dear Annie: You were kind enough to publish my article last year about parents who are grieving the loss of a child during the holidays. Would you be kind enough to republish what I’ve updated?

Since this time last year, more children have died from an overdose. I am heartbroken about what all these parents are going through. I have spent much of the past year meeting with grieving parents. It’s a pain no parent should ever experience, a deep unrelenting anguish that chokes at one’s soul, snuffing out any hope for peace. The only reprieve we get is in sharing our stories with other grieving parents and finding ways to commemorate their short time on this earth. Thank you, Annie. I deeply appreciate it.

Holidays for grieving parents

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Another year and set of holidays without my son “Sam.” Once again, no family dinners, no lounging around a roaring fire, no sharing tales, no loving banter, just a silent room that was once filled with laughter that’s now filled with sadness and silence. Sam, like so many other children in our nation, died from a fentanyl overdose.

Between roughly 10% and 12% of the general population will bury a child or grandchild in their lifetime. This number is unacceptable and heartbreaking. Chances are if you are reading this, you probably already know someone who is grieving the loss of a child during this holiday season.

Social media, commercials, billboards and the outdoor display of holiday ornaments have a way of amplifying a parent’s grief. It is a painful reminder that yet another year has passed without our loved one. So, what do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friend’s loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joy of the season. Saying something is better than saying nothing. Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.)

When talking about the holidays with loved ones, strive to be thoughtful and deliberate in your choice of words. Before losing Sam, I may have unintentionally hurt other parents who were grieving the loss of children just by repeating the same phrases I had heard and said for years. Here are a few suggestions that may be helpful:

— “I’m thinking of you during the holidays. I know they are difficult without Sam.”

— “Will you join us for Hanukkah, Christmas Dinner, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, etc.? We realize you might not want to be alone.”

— “I know the new year can be a reminder of how much time has passed since losing Sam. I am so sorry.”

— “May I come visit with you during the holidays?”

— “I’d love to hear stories about Sam.”

Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate. Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party. Acknowledge awareness of your friend’s ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others, and avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

Please keep me and my family in your thoughts and prayers as we enter our second holiday season without Sam.

— From a Still Grieving Father

Dear Grieving Father: Thank you for your updated letter. I share it again with the hope that it continues to guide those who are grieving during this time of year. Now and always, I send my deepest condolences for your loss and immense love to you, your family and anyone else who is in mourning this holiday season.

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