Heartbreak And The Holidays

Heartbreak And The Holidays

Losing MacLean swamped me again last night. We were driving aimlessly with our kids Zachie and Zoe, looking for Christmas light displays. Like most parents who have lost children, my life is separated into “Life with MacLean” and “Life without MacLean.” As we drove, we kept up our annoying Collard commentary on some familiar sights, and that’s when it hit me that my son had been in the back seat laughing and enjoying the displays the last time we’d seen these lights. And that I would never get to see them with him again.

MacLeanie and his twin brother Zachary were born neurotypical and hit all their milestones as they should until around two and a half, when they abruptly regressed into autism. Then, at nine years of age, they developed seizure disorders. Despite diets and treatment and medication and everything possible, my MacLean passed away from SUDEP (Sudden Unexplained Death by Epilepsy) about 18 months ago. He’d woken up that morning around 4:30am, so I got to kiss him before leaving for our radio show. By the time our nanny frantically called us at 8am, my boy was gone.

To be honest, I really didn’t want to write this. A therapist friend of mine convinced me that we might have coping tools that could help other parents, so here goes…

Everything turns into milestones- another Mother’s Day without my MacLean. Another un-shared birthday for Zachary. But the holidays are the toughest for most people- where the warmth of the season and the focus on family hones our grief into a razor-sharp point. When you have other children, you don’t get to crumble and fall apart. They deserve happiness- and just as important- seeing you happy too. But I cried last night because missing MacLean turned me inside out, and my seven year old Zoe sagely remarked, “Oh, you’re missing ‘Cleanie again. That’s all right, Mom.” I think you have to show grief as well to the rest of the family- let them know that it’s okay to be sad, and that yes, it’s normal that happy things and experiences can still make you cry.

But you can’t cry all the time.

So, Todd and I have developed some coping mechanisms over the last 18 months, some we’ve discovered, some suggested by smart friends and fellow parents who have lost a little one. And if you’re mourning a loved one gone this holiday, maybe they’ll help you too.

 

Create a special place for your child.

I have MacLean’s tree, which we placed just outside the door so he has a beacon when he flies by. I like to think of my son roaring along with the wind- he always loved it. In fact, on the one year anniversary of the day we lost him, a wild 60 mph wind rose out of nowhere. My boy: such a drama queen! But I stood outside in the backyard and laughed, appreciating his little greeting. His angel wings are placed on the top, and his sister and brother decorated his tree with all his favorite things, like his little birdhouses and ridiculously large candy canes. Maybe it’s a collection of framed photographs. A tableau of beloved toys and images of from some of your best memories. Todd keeps a picture of MacLean on the table at Christmas dinner so he’s “sharing” it with us. Whatever you choose to display gives you a focal point and a feeling of peace that your little one isn’t gone.

 

 

Include an activity or tradition your little person loved.

MacLean loved the Dollar Store run, where he’d pick out his gifts for everyone in the house. Even though Zachie’s older and capable of making more sophisticated presents, he and Zoe trek through the aisles to pick up a little something for each of us. The goal is to stimulate those happy memories of enjoying this experience together and letting them bond your family more tightly. (This picture includes a frame from MacLeanie’s Dollar Store adventures.)

 

 

Make a Memory Video.

I do this on every birthday, having guests share a memory to honor the new milestone for my kiddo’s lives. But the holidays tend to be when more of us get together, and I asked everyone to remember a favorite moment with MacLean. There was lots of laughter, some crying (I’m from a Scottish family, there’s always a lot of laughing and crying, often at the same time, which is quite impressive) and some incredible memories- several that I’d never heard before. Afterwards, a couple of my sisters, then a stream of nieces and nephews confided that the ritual brought them a lot of relief- that they weren’t sure if they could say that they missed their cousin or if they should even bring up his name. Everyone felt more relaxed and happy after being able to talk about MacLean. (This image is from a big Christmas-themed photo shoot – slash – video. MacLean was so thrilled by it all that he fell asleep. Twice. I’d forgotten until a girlfriend sent this to me. I’ll treasure it forever.)

 

Don’t pretend everything is the same.

Nothing is ever going to be the same, and it’s all right to accept that. Maybe every tradition at the holidays is centered around the child who is no longer there. It’s okay – important, actually – to create new traditions, too. It doesn’t mean you have forgotten your child, but some fresh rituals that make you happy are a small, but important sign of moving through the sadness and allowing yourself and your family to experience more simple joys. Zachie and Zoe wanted to start sledding the minute it snowed this year. MacLeanie was never a fan of being cold, so we didn’t do it often. This year, I pulled out the sleds and hauled the kids into their snowpants the minute the first flake fell from the sky.

 

Say his/her name. Please.

Zoe asked me once, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about MacLean any more?” People, trying to be kind and not upset you, will often never speak about your lost child, never use his name. MacLean’s siblings needed to know that he was real, that he mattered- it helped Zoe to hear about her brother, because she was only 5 when he passed away. It gives her and Zachie (and us) peace and security knowing that MacLean is not forgotten. When our extended family reminisce about MacLean- sharing a memory that might have just popped up or sending a video or pictures they’ve just found- it brings him here to us again. I’ve had to ask friends to please say his name, share a memory, anything! My girlfriend Debbie breathed a sigh of relief and said “Thank you! I’ve wanted to tell you about MacLean and this little craft we’d made together, and I just found it, and…” I can’t speak for any other parent who’s lost a child, but I can say that every parent who’s shared their experience with me all wanted the same thing. “Say his/her name. Talk about my child. He didn’t disappear.”

 

Heartbreak And The Holidays – This is so important:

If you or someone you know is going through the grieving process this holiday and needs help- it is SO important that you ask for it! Here’s some resources I want you to use, please. And a huge hug from me and all the love in the Universe.

Grief Source Network has several different numbers from excellent sources here. 

Grief Support Directory has a host of resources here.

Compassionate Friends specifically operates support groups nationwide to help parents who have lost children, reach them here.

Please do not be afraid to reach out to friends and family. Remember when they said “Anything I can do…” when you lost your little one? They meant it. And they will be grateful to actually be able to help.

 

And if you have experienced the loss of a child and have suggestions or ideas to offer- PLEASE DO SO HERE- I learned almost everything I know from other parents who have gone through this grief before me. So please share and help others.

21 replies
  1. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I lost my little brother when I was 12 & he was almost 5. I loved that little boy more than I ever loved anybody at that age. It was devastating for ALL of us but everybody focused on the parents grief. My other brothers & I were told we couldnt talk him because it made my dad too sad. I grew up thinking I didnt matter, I wasnt enough because we became invisible while my dad grieved the son he lost. I know that was only my perception but to me it was real. I was 12 & I was hurting in a way I didnt understand. And to make things worse, I lost the family that I knew. So I just want to tell you that as hard as it was losing your beautiful boy, my admiration in keeping him alive in you and your childrens lives is strong & courageous. I know first hand the importance of acknowleding your childrens grief and celebrating your son, their brother, with them. You are forever changed when you lose a child you have made ut about Love and not bitterness. You are so lucky to have each other. Much love and admiration. Merry Christmas 🎅🏻🤶🏻

    Reply
  2. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I lost my little brother when I was 12 & he was almost 5. I loved that little boy more than I ever loved anybody at that age. It was devastating for ALL of us but everybody focused on the parents grief. My other brothers & I were told we couldnt talk him because it made my dad too sad. I grew up thinking I didnt matter, I wasnt enough because we became invisible while my dad grieved the son he lost. I know that was only my perception but to me it was real. I was 12 & I was hurting in a way I didnt understand. And to make things worse, I lost the family that I knew. So I just want to tell you that as hard as it was losing your beautiful boy, my admiration in keeping him alive in you and your childrens lives is strong & courageous. I know first hand the importance of acknowleding your childrens grief and celebrating your son, their brother, with them. You are forever changed when you lose a child you have made ut about Love and not bitterness. You are so lucky to have each other. Much love and admiration. Merr Christmas 🎅🏻🤶🏻

    Reply
  3. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    I just cried my eyes out reading this. Maclean is such a special wonderful boy. Your family is so special. You have such a special gift of communication that touches peoples lives so deeply. You are such special parents. Although I don’t know you and your family personally, I feel this strong connection and deep feeling of love for all of you. I lived in Utah for a long time and listened to B97 for years. Someday I hope to meet you in person to give you a warm loving thank you hug for being the great people that you are. God bless you all in this difficult season.

    Reply
  4. Lyndie Barker
    Lyndie Barker says:

    Erin!
    I lost my dad one year ago today, and although it’s not like losing a child, it is a loss. I celebrate his life, but I miss his advise (he had a bit of dementia, so– advise has been a while anyway, but I still miss not being able to ask him questions) I do feel his presence in a doll he gave me to be put away at Christmas and brought out again next year–I so feel him when I hug that doll. He has a beautiful piece of drift wood hanging on the wall, that has been there since I was little, he hung ornaments on it, I told mom to keep doing that. Last night we went to The Brian Fetzer concert, out of the blue he sang a Johnny Cash song, He’s my dad’s favorite, who would think I would cry when “Ring of Fire” was sung! Thanks for writing this, lots of good advise, you are my friend, you gave me comfort with your condolence, and even tho we don’t see each other enough, I love you! Isn’t it nice to know that the presence of those who progressed before us is always felt! Thanks for being there for me, I am here for you. Yeah, and I kind of like Todd, too! Hugs to both of you! I shout their names–Merry Christmas MacLean and Daddy!

    Reply
  5. America Lee
    America Lee says:

    Erin,
    Thank you for sharing your story. MacLean will always be part of your family and specially yours. I’m sure the empty space he left will be fill with memories of his life with you. Every time the wind touches your face will be kisses from him. You are such a strong and extraordinary woman. You are kind, caring and one of the best mother’s I have the privilege of knowing. I admire you. Give a big hug to your beautiful family for me. Merry Christmas.

    Reply
  6. Tina Jones
    Tina Jones says:

    Thank you for sharing, this met a lot. and that must have been very difficult. I lost my brother in May to epilepsy and even though he was older it has still been very difficult. He left 3 kids behind, and there is not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t miss him.

    Reply
  7. Jill
    Jill says:

    Beautifully said. Things aren’t supposed to be the same. Our lives changed when our angels came into our lives and they changed again when they left for Heaven.

    Reply
  8. Elayne
    Elayne says:

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful soul with us! You are a talented lady, a beautiful mother and a gifted writer. I hope you holidays are warm and wonderful! Much love ❤️

    Reply
  9. Kim Woodman Stockdale
    Kim Woodman Stockdale says:

    This so touching and brings a lot to my mind about losing my son and how I coped. He was older, 22, and died after a double lung transplant. Charlie was so charismatic that it was important to keep his name and cause in front of everyone. We organized a10K race in his name to raise money for others needing transplants (most of the expense was the responsibility of the family to pay out of pocket!). The last thing Charlie said when he was asked in an interview what was the first thing he’d do when he got home was “I think I’ll go running”‘. I know he ran every race we did annually. But the holidays …They are so hard even after 27 years.

    My advice to anyone who losses a child is to find ways to celebrate that child’s life. Little triumphs and big successes need to be up front. That’s been the only thing that has kept me from shriveling inside. We remember him and even embrace some joyous times.

    Reply
    • Todd & Erin
      Todd & Erin says:

      I love you Kim, and I am so happy that I got to know more about Charlie tonight. Thank you being brave and sharing him with us. All my love and hugs to you, my sister, and thank you for the advice.

      Reply
  10. Paula Humphrey
    Paula Humphrey says:

    Dear Erin,

    Thank you so much for sharing this I definitely needed this tonight. Even though we knew for the past 3 years he was going to pass away didn’t make it easier for my husband and I the way we thought it might. In fact since September it has been really hard for me to believe he is not going to be here with us physically. And you are right so many do not mention his name. We have attended 2 different family dinners where his name was never mentioned. It is heartbreaking. I want you to know how much I have learned from your very sweet comments sent to me privately and here they mean so much to me. Paula~

    Reply
  11. Linda Rawson
    Linda Rawson says:

    Love you Erin! This is a great article and I know it was tough. Thank you for sharing your grief to help others. You are a such an awesome person and I am so grateful to know you. Big hugs.

    Reply
  12. Maren Perez
    Maren Perez says:

    My lost boy wasn’t a boy when he died but he had been “lost” for a long time.
    It’s so good to remind people to think and speak and talk about your lost loved one every day. That’s how we remember them and keep them in our hearts.
    Love your angel tree. I’m sure your blessed boy knows it’s there.
    Again, you are special people.
    Maren Perez

    Reply
  13. Andrea Abbott
    Andrea Abbott says:

    So beautifully said. I know several people going through this very thing. May the Lord bless each of you not only during the holidays but every day. Your sweet boy is an angel and flies around you all every day. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Reply
  14. Lorie Rowley
    Lorie Rowley says:

    I lost my brother and my mom 13 years ago 8 days apart it never gets any easier you always remember them they’re always with you. They are there without you even knowing it little tiny sediment things that happen to you. You guys are special and loving and caring. After my mom and brother passed away I was able to sit with my grandma that was 99 years old for six months and I never missed a day and I appreciate the time that I had with them. I appreciate time time is precious to me if anybody ask what if they could give me I would say time. Parents think they need to get their kids hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of gifts and all they want is time. I see that’s what you give your kids and they will always remember that.

    Reply
  15. Barbara A Newby
    Barbara A Newby says:

    For you to share your story and share the things that helps get you through the hard times is so touching. You two are truly amazing.
    My love to you and your family.
    Miss you all.

    Reply
  16. Graham suzanne
    Graham suzanne says:

    To my sweet friends. I so love you both. Words can not Express how much I care and appreciate you both and your family. You both are very special. Please don’t forget that. Thank you for all you do. We love you.

    Reply
  17. Vicki Speer
    Vicki Speer says:

    Dear sweet Erin, I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you. I often think about how strong you are on the outside and what you are feeling inside. Thank you for sharing your sweet experiences with us. I know MacLean is with you and Todd and Zoe and Zachie. That is a sweet Christmas tree and picture you put on the table. It helps to talk about them. I know you feel his presence, it’s not the same I know. I miss my Dad so much. I know he is with me, I wish I could see his face. Not the same, I know. You and Todd are truly the sweetest, most caring people I have the privilege of knowing. You two are the best parents, friends I know.
    Thank you for all you do for so many people all year long. Please know you are in my prayers and I wish I could give you a big hug right now. Love you and your sweet family!

    Reply
    • Todd & Erin
      Todd & Erin says:

      Oh, Vicki, all loss is the same, and it hurts just as much. I know how much you loved your father, and I’m sorry you’re battling grief this holiday, too. Thank you for your sweetness and your loving reply. I have so much respect for your strength and kindness.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *