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.