Coping with grief at the holidays

The pain of a child’s death is acute this time of year


Megan Lear


While many parents will be hanging strings of holiday lights to make memories for their children, some will be remembering their children with one light.

It’s a hard time of year for grieving parents.

And Ron Hall knows. He heads the local chapter of the international Oak Brook-based group, the Compassionate Friends, which is organizing one of several candle-lighting memorials. “I just can’t seem to get into the Christmas spirit,” says Hall, 58, of Chicago. He hasn’t put up a tree or attended a holiday party since his daughter, Lisa, committed suicide in 1991. But he will celebrate his daughter from 7-8 p.m. on Dec. 12 the same way he has for the past five years. 

“This candle-lighting day is to honor the fact that our children once lived and will live on in our hearts forever. This time can be sad, but the ceremony is to honor the child and share the bond throughout the world,” Hall says.

More than 15,000 grieving parents and relatives around the world are expected to take part in the memorial in the privacy of their own homes. Others will come together. Heartlight, a bereavement program at Children’s Memorial Hospital, is planning a Dec. 9 group ceremony.

“It’s important to remember your child. It’s a healing process to come together and be with other families that have also experienced loss,” says Pat Barmore, a specialist for Heartlight.

The right way to grieve Parents have different ways of coping with the death of a child but dealing with their loss at the holidays can be particularly difficult. Hall and his wife choose to stay home, but being around people may help.

“People should try to be with other family members during the holidays and be with people that love and care about them,” says Stuart Pinkwater, a therapist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. He also says that writing a journal to release feelings or writing a letter to your child might help get feelings out. But there is no right way to deal with the holidays. “Families should do what they feel is right for them,” he says.

Wayne Loder, public awareness coordinator for the Compassionate Friends knows. His children, Stephen, 5, and Stephanie, 8, died in 1991 in an automobile accident. “For about five years after Stephen and Stephanie’s death we did not put up a Christmas tree,” Loder says. “It was too difficult because my children loved Christmas.” 

Through time and support, the Loder family began to celebrate the holidays with the two children that were born after Stephen and Stephanie’s death—Chris, now 12, and Katie, 10.

“When we did decide to put a Christmas tree up, we asked friends and relatives to send us Christmas ornaments to put on our tree, which reminded them of our children,” says Loder. Keep stress down Still, the most important thing is to minimalize stress, says Noah Weinstein, a counselor at the Palliative Care Center and Hospice of the North Shore.

“They shouldn’t make big decisions around the holidays and push themselves too hard,” he says.

Parents can find help through support groups.

“There are at least 20 different groups dealing with the death of newborns and infants,” says Barmore. People can get information through Heartlight. There are a variety of groups, including those for children who have died of cancer or committed suicide. There are also specific groups for mothers, fathers, siblings or for the entire family. 

After Lisa’s death, a friend told Hall about the Compassionate Friends. It helped him.   

“After a child passes away, a support group is definitely beneficial to those who are suffering; it can remove some isolation.” says Pinkwater.

The candle-lighting is another way for grieving families to ease the pain. Says Barmore, “It’s a time families can come together and know they are not alone.”


Megan Lear is a Chicago Parent intern and a senior at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa.

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