Over this past summer, I had the honor of spending time with our friends Nancy & Peter Grayson. We met after their son Joel and our son Dakota both died. For the past couple of years, we've gathered to have Joel's birthday together. This year, I was overwhelmed by a most simple and beautiful act that Nancy & Peter did for Joel.
Nancy really, really wanted to shop for Joel. He would have been five years old and starting school. She thought of all the things she would have bought for his birthday: first book bag, first school supplies, outfit for the first day of school, new play clothes, new socks. And all she really wanted to do was to go shopping for him. So she and Peter decided to do just that!!! They went shopping.
When Hawk & I met up with them at the Cafe, Nancy presented the huge gift bag full of beautifully wrapped presents. We delighted in unwrapping and sharing all the gifts for Joel with each other. And we had a birthday cake complete with candles and singing. We did a great henna design on Nancy's hand that incorporated Joel's name, so that as she moved through the weeks between Joel's birth date and death date, she'd have his name right out there for all the world to see!
And when all was said and done, Nancy gave me the book bag, packed full of supplies and clothes, along with a Kindness Card saying this act of kindness was being done in memory of Joel. Through our Food Bank, we were able to find a family who needed items like these for a child who was about Joel's age.
What a COOOOOOOL approach to the birthday holiday was that?????!!!!! I was left feeling so in awe of all the ways Nancy and Peter continue to validate themselves as Joel's parents. It is a different kind of parenting, to be sure, but it IS parenting. Joel's mom and dad did school shopping just like everyone else!
And I began to think about how this integration of "a different kind of parenthood" into the lives of bereaved parents moves them from just being "bereaved" and into being parents! They are whole and complete people -- living full lives and not losing their parenthood! And I began to think about how we could use this approach for dealing with all the holidays! Normally it is all a daze -- a holidaze of painful longing for our kids -- but with this approach, we can acknowledge, even celebrate holidays AND acknowledge our grief AND continue our parenthood!!
So here are some ideas for different "holidays" and how you might approach them:
The cool thing about this month is that it is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month with many memorial events happening on or around the 15th. This "holiday" was made into a National awareness event by President Ronald Regan during his term in office. He had experienced the loss of a child himself and so had a very personal understanding of how important this awareness is to bereaved parents. And this isn't only a National Awareness time as other countries have picked up on this as well.
October is also Breast Cancer Awareness and so you often see the pink ribbons and lots of press readily available for these events. I think we can raise awareness for both causes by wearing both the pink ribbon AND the blue, pink & yellow ribbon. When you are at events for Breast Cancer Awareness and they ask what the other ribbon is for, tell them! If you are doing press releases about local events during this month, include the events for BOTH causes.
This is also the month that sort of ushers in the "holiday season," and many parents have told me how very difficult Halloween is for them. It is the beginning of seeing all these happy families, all the gatherings of kids where your kid is missing, all the coming events where people will ignore your parenthood. BUT Halloween does not have to "open the season" in this way. It does not have to be a hollow, candy consumer based, day!
Days of the Dead also happen at this time of year. This is a Mexican tradition where families spend the entire month honoring their dead. The beginnings of community wide celebration starts on Halloween when it is believed the spirits of the children who have died, return. And then through November 1 & 2 when it is believed the spirits of all our other deceased return. I encourage families to explore diversity and look into this tradition. In Arizona there are large community celebrations of this holiday. Heck, even FoodTV offers shows on how to make your own sugar skulls for the ofrenda (altar) you make in your home during the month of October. This can be an awesome tradition for starting off the "holiday season" with ALL your children, living and dead, included right from the start.
November brings Turkey, I mean Tofu, Day! Again, I've heard from many families that Thanksgiving is a difficult time because at family gatherings people will not mention their dead child. There will be cousins around -- kids who are close to the age the dead child would be if he/she had survived. And yet, no one, not a single soul in the entire gathering will mention the dead child. And if the bereaved parent brings up the child, there will be a tense air or an explicit rebuke that says, "It is not appropriate to talk about death" or "You should be over this by now." How very sad.
I advocate several things for incorporating the WHOLE family into this holiday. You, as a parent, can be pro-active in the inclusion of your child -- which shows an example of compassion and honoring ancestors to the entire family! You know that moment, right before everyone digs in, when everyone takes a turn going around the table to say what they are thankful for, right? I mean it is THANKS-GIVING time, right? Well, you take your turn and say something like, "I am so thankful for ALL my children, living and dead, because they teach me things about how to be a better person." And then say the names of ALL your children out loud. If the response is stunned silence, so be it. At least you have voiced your parenthood and included ALL the kids.
For an even more expressive display of inclusion, you might consider doing something that people do for Day of the Dead. When celebrating Day of the Dead, people will have huge feasts. And at these feasts, there is always food set out for the dead who are being honored. Set a place at your table and then make sure the plate is stacked full of food and the cup is filled-to-overflowing. And that place is set for the entire meal. After dinner, you can place the plate and cup outside to feed the roaming animals, or you can feed it to the hungry ghost of the compost. Whatever you wish.
The winter holidays can also be difficult, too. But there are many ways to incorporate your whole family into this time of the year. Every December, every single year, there is a Memorial Day that happens on the second Sunday. It is called National Children's Memorial Day (NCMD). You can do a Google search for "national children's memorial day" and find many, many pages about upcoming events for 2004 -- most of these pages are updated each year to keep the event information relevant. The MISS Foundation chapters offer events every year, too. And these candle lighting events are usually open to all family members and friends. It can be a respite in the middle of the otherwise busidiculous season. I highly recommend families attend an event in their area if possible.
This month tends to be the holidays of "gift giving" which can be hard on families because often the deceased children are forgotten. There are so many charities in need, that I often tell friends and family that while they are shopping for our living children, I'd appreciate they remember our son as well by giving a donation somewhere. It is a simple thing. People who love you and are in the mood for gift giving to your kids anyway, are very often thrilled to know about this simple way to include ALL your kids.
I also recommend you do the same for you! When you are out shopping for gifts and becoming acutely aware that you should also be buying that cool new walkman for your child who died who should be a teenager this season -- well, I say BUY IT! And then go to your local family services office or just look around the mall for the places doing toy and gift drives. Attach a Kindness Card to whatever you bought and donate it. You get to shop for ALL your kids -- and you get to have your child's legacy help other kids in need.
And as you celebrate Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwaanza, remember that these holidays are about light. So go ahead and light candles in your house and on your holiday table. Acknowledge that one of those candles is for your child. If anyone gives you a hassle about it -- remind them that thousands of people everywhere are celebrating the birth of a man who died a couple thousand years ago -- so you can celebrate your child who died in our lifetime!!
New Years, Birthdays, Angelversary Days
An interesting idea that came up recently for these kinds of days was to have a party where you offer some kind of art making where people can make memorial items or any kind of art they want. Personally, I've been doing henna parties for people where several activities happen. One, I actually do henna body art on people, doing designs that incorporate the child's name and maybe the birth/death dates. Two, I will sometimes take plain sugar cookies in the shape of hands and feet with me. Then I bring cones full of chocolate icing and people at the party can decorate the cookies with designs that again incorporate the child's name and dates. The cool thing about henna body art is that then people wear those designs on their bodies for several weeks after -- they are literally carrying their children with them. That's pretty cool.
I've also participated in prayer-book-making or scrapbooking parties where ideas and supplies are shared for doing mindful art in group setting. Kids can work side by side with adults. You can invite friends and family members. It's always amazing to invite someone who says, "Oh, I can't do art." Only to then have them come and make the most amazing pieces!!
Other than that, especially for birthdays and angelversary days, I recommend that you ask for whatever you need. People aren't mind readers, so it may be that they simply don't know how to support you on these days. Ask them, tell them, send invitations, send lists of ideas of things that might help.
Most importantly for ANY day of the year, especially holidays, take good care of you!!! Self-care is our best way to stay well and stay emotionally available to the people in our lives. Whatever you need, do it! Be gentle. And know that you aren't alone.