December 12, 2014
Yesterday it happened…we received our first Christmas card of the season. It was one of the good ones. It was from a dear friend I’ve known since childhood. We grew up a few houses down the street from each other. She is a writer and has such a gift for touching on the Christmas spirit while sharing family updates. I was looking forward to reading the card, however I can remember a time where it was hard for me to open Christmas cards from even the dearest friends that first Christmas after Charley died.
Our son, Charley died in late August and our family started to attend support groups at Fernside in November, right as the holiday season started. My group quickly focused our discussions on how to get through the holidays. One thing that can be painful for grieving families is what to do about the tradition of sending holiday cards. Do you send cards or not? Do you include your child’s name or leave it off? How can you not include their name, after all they will always be a part of your family?
In the past, we had always sent one of those “perfect” holiday cards; our daughter Grace next to her brother Charley, dressed in matching outfits by the Christmas tree. That year our Christmas would not be so perfect.
After much thought, I decided to start the tradition of composing a Christmas letter. The letter would provide an opportunity to thank our family and friends for all their support following Charley’s sudden death. Over the years it has given me a platform to share my thoughts and has allowed me to focus on the real meaning of the season. We did end up including a photo in our family letter that first year. We decided to include Charley’s favorite stuffed bear he affectionately called Rainbow Bear. The toy bear became sort of a stand-in for him and brought us comfort at a time when not much else made sense. In the years that have followed, Rainbow Bear has often surfaced in family photos.
Grief at the holidays can be a difficult road to navigate. Families can find meaning in holding onto time-honored traditions, like sending cards, while at the same time embracing new rituals. To this day, it can still be hard to receive one of those “perfect” cards from friends standing on the beach in Hawaii or of families sharing a magical Disney vacation. But then I pause and I am grateful for the effort they made to stay connected. Life doesn’t always have to be “perfect” to have great meaning. It’s about living in the present and enjoying the time we have.
Sally Ries attended Fernside in November 2003 with her husband, Jim and daughter, Grace, following the death of their four-year old son, Charley. Sally was a Fernside volunteer facilitator before joining the Fernside staff in 2009.