Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our First Christmas

In an earlier post on handling the holidays, there was advice on how to take care during this particularly stressful season. Although I believe the list of coping strategies, they were not all authentically mine. I wanted to take this opportunity to post how I coped with the holidays, the first year after Flynn's death.
Flynn was born in May and by the time December came around I believed I was coping with his death and could handle this family- oriented time of year. We had Rhys at home after all and he was three and a half, needing our undivided attention and fully aware of the promise of presents that this season brings.
As I began to prepare for the holidays, with decorations and festivities it became evident to me that something did not feel right. I did not know how to feel happy when we did not have Flynn with us; the year prior on Boxing Day was when we found out that we were pregnant with him, that along with pregnant family and friends surrounding us, the holidays were beginning to feel unbearable.
Our family no longer talked about Flynn; in fact I felt like I discussed him too much as discomfort crossed the face of my loved ones. Although Flynn lived for only a short time; the previous year during my pregnancy with him was how I landmarked my life. The only way to bring up an event was to position it in relation to my pregnancy or his death. I felt that any conversation with me must be depressing and therefore I did not say much, the holiday events became a source of anxiety as I struggled with how to politely smile and nod through conversations without creating despair.
I soon recognized that I could not make Flynn a part of the larger family holiday, I needed to make him a part of our small family's traditions and I went about figuring how to do that.
We have a custom in our family, we get an ornament for our tree when a child is born and I decided that Flynn needed one for our tree. I went about the difficult task of finding one that had meaning, was hopeful but not whimsically proclaiming "Baby's First Christmas!" I did not find anything and when I felt defeated and like it was an impossible task I received the Willow Tree "Angel of Comfort" from my aunt. It was not meant to be an ornament for a tree but when I got it, I knew that was exactly what it would be for our family. I wrote Flynn's name and birth date on the bottom of the figurine and hung it on the tree. I also bought one for my parent's and my husband's parents for their trees.
After finding the ornament I truly believed I would find some peace during the holidays but I did not, in fact I was feeling swallowed, isolated and depressed by my grief. What I really wanted was to be buying gifts for our son, hanging a stocking with his name on it, waking him to find gifts under the tree that his older brother would open for him. I did not know how to reconcile his death and the holidays.
At work they were having a toy drive for children in need, I had not been paying attention and then a friend asked me if I was going to donate to the Angel Tree? I was not sure that I heard her correctly, the Angel Tree? It turns out that was the name of the campaign and you could pick an angel off of the tree with a child's gender and age and buy an appropriate toy.
I went to the tree and the very first angel that I took off said "Boy, age 0" and that is when I knew that this was how I would honour Flynn during the holidays.
Since that holiday seven years ago, this tradition has evolved to include a toy for boys the same ages as ALL my boys and I involve the whole family in picking the gifts. For me it is the way to make meaning of a difficult time of the year and give to families who need a little help believing in the season just as I did the first year after Flynn's death.
I honour Flynn with a gift for a child in need and in turn it makes the holidays meaningful for my family in Flynn's memory.

Rest in Peace Frosty

I drove into my driveway after work last week, grabbed my things from the van and walked to the end of the drive to gather our recycling bins. It was there that I was met by an interesting sight. At the end of my driveway, as the picture shows, was a snowy grave built by Ash and Rhys.
While "most" children are building Frosty, his wife and children; my children have built a homage to his inevitable death.
This made me reflect on how capable I am of keeping my work at work? I know that I never talk about my families that I support at the kitchen table or at all really (I am not adverse to discussing death with the boys, I just happen not to discuss work).
It turns out that whether I talk about it or not, my boys know that death is a part of our family, what I do, who they are, and although the neighbours may be uncomfortable with Frosty's resting place out front, my children are quite comfortable, even proud of their creative creation and honestly so am I.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grief and the Holidays

The Holiday Season is fast approaching and it can be a very difficult time when a loved one has died. We are bombarded with images and announcements proclaiming this time of year as joyous, one surrounded by family and friends, a time to celebrate and these sentiments can be particularly hard when we are "Anything But Merry."
Traditions and rituals at this time can lose their meaning, especially when the person that made the traditions special is no longer a part of them. This year we put together a list to make handling the holidays easier and I wanted to share it here:

1. Skipping the holidays is likely not an option, you need to prepare and face them squarely. Make plans that you know you can do and that make you comfortable.

2. Focus on this holiday first. I always say "Do not add future griefs to the present ones." Don't look forward to all the holidays to come. Adding pressure to this holiday by worrying about the other special days, is added stress you do not need.

3. Think about ways to honour the memory of your loved one during the holiday. Whether it is beginning a new tradition or carrying on an old one, make your loved one a part of your celebration.

4. There are always unrealistic expectations during the holidays. They can come from family and friends or they can be expectations that we put on ourselves. Recognize what these expectations are and in doing that you can decide what you can or cannot do. Accept what is normal for you.

5. Take care of yourself. Holidays usually mean extra fatigue, drinking, partying and visiting. By making yourself a priority you will partake in festivities that you have the energy for and let the other activities wait for another year.

6. Remember that you are grieving. You will feel joy, pain and bittersweet memories. Let them come.

7. Plan ahead. Make lists, put events on the calendar, have "escape" plans. Take advantage of your good days, get things done on the to-do list, stay in on the bad days and rejuvenate.

8. Let yourself cry when you need to. You will not ruin the holiday for yourself or for others. Do what comes naturally for you. Holding in your emotions can be destructive.

9. It may be helpful to set limits. Let others know what you need and how they can best help you. Don't be forced into doing something because someone else thinks that you should.

10. Give yourself permission to have joyful times as well as mournful times. They are normal, not a betrayal.

11. Discuss your holiday traditions with your family. Decide what to keep, what to change and what to discard.

12. Make your goals small. Don't over-commit yourself. Take it slow and easy.

13. Go over your plans. Why are you doing them? For you or for someone else?

14. Do something for someone else. Even though you are feeling sad because of your loved ones death, reaching out to others can often bring you a certain holiday peace.

15. Lastly remember that it will not always be this way, this year is about doing the best that you can, with you in mind, for you.

Pardon, what did you say?

People say sympathetic things with the best intention and as a griever it can be hard to recognize that although the words are anything but appropriate the intention is meant to be caring and helpful.

I started to see a chiropractor a month ago and as a new patient in his practice, we had to do an initial consultation. At my first visit we went over my medical history, how many children I have, how many pregnancies, stresses in my life, etc. and during this consultation I explained Flynn's life and death and also my occupation. He was very kind and empathetic, I appreciated that and because of his demeanor felt that this would be a good relationship to aid in my physical well being.
I went for an appointment a week ago after seeing him 2-3 times a week for 3 weeks. We have seen each other so much over the past 3 weeks that we are on a first name basis and I recognized right away that he seemed off of his game and not his normal chipper self. During the treatment he asked me about the emerald ring I wear and whether it was my birth stone and when I told him that it was actually for Flynn and it was his birth stone, he seemed completely flabbergasted. He apologized, told me how sorry he was to hear of my son's death and asked how it happened. I was equally surprised by his lack of memory but chalked it up to a bad day and told him again how Flynn had died due to his premature birth. He responded with "well there must have been a reason."
I felt totally deflated and disappointed. After hearing this response several hundred times over the past 8 years I have come to appreciate the underlying intent of "a reason" but that night any "reason" for my son's death was lost to me. I stared dumbfounded, had my treatment and went home.
The week in between the appointments I was tormented with thoughts of my conversation with my chiropractor. I also recalled, with a sense of irony, that I had left my original chiropractor soon after Flynn's death for saying the exact same thing. Was I destined to live without a back adjustment due to "reason"?
I had to believe that I was in a different place with my grief now, a place of growth and the opportunity to educate. I decided that at my next appointment I would talk to my chiropractor and tell him how "a reason" could negatively impact someone. I would make positive suggestions for dialogue surrounding news of a death that could help him approach it more delicately in the future.

I went into my appointment and before the treatment began I gently tried to start the conversation:
"I just wanted to let you know that last week when I was here we discussed my son's death and I could tell you were having an off day so when we discussed it you had said that there must have been a reason..."

This is where he broke into my explanation and said "What were we talking about last week? I don't remember a discussion?" (or something to that affect)

So thrown off, I tried a different approach:
"Because I work in grief support and helping people manage and cope with grief I sometimes see opportunities to support the community in how to help the griever and when you said that there must be a reason for my son's death (last week) it threw me off because there was a time when that statement has or would have upset me, I just wanted to let you know that when someone has experienced a death, a "reason" may not bring them comfort and "I" statements can be much more comfortable like "I cannot imagine what you are going through...""

He broke in again and said:

"You know I can be really sarcastic and rude and someone will think what I said is hilarious and laugh along and then I take time and try to say something thoughtful and someone can be totally offended, I am sorry if what I said upset you but I won't say the right thing all the time."

I nodded my head at this point, had the treatment and mentally noted to myself that I would not be returning to this chiropractor either. It seems that even 8 years on my grief journey and I can still be affected by the sympathetic yet inappropriate things that people say.