New York State Funeral Directors Association

Holidays after the Loss of a Child

One of the most devastating events in life is when a parent loses a child. What can be normal ever again after the death of a son or daughter especially around the holidays?

In her book, "When the Bough Breaks," psychologist Judith Bernstein, Ph.D. interviewed 55 parents who lost children ranging in age from three to 49.

She found that the worst days after the death of a child are holidays -- days meant as festivals of happiness and joy are now days of tears.

Dr. Bernstein suggests that changing routine from how things used to be often makes the empty chair less prominent. Some families change where they normally would celebrate the holidays to another location, going to a relative's house instead of having a holiday dinner at home.

Others use holiday time to vacation away from home.

Most families will ultimately come back to the old traditions, finding deeper values in the togetherness of family holidays. Though these days may be painful during the early years after a child's loss, they seem not to remain so for most families.

While the backward glance at the empty chair never completely fades, the glance becomes more nostalgia and less loss.

Dr. Bernstein offers some advice to help with working through grief:

  • Follow your own instincts.
  • Plan holidays and special occasions in advance and let others know your wishes.
  • Allow pleasure and banish guilt.
  • Seek professional counseling if and when you have a sense that you need a hand.
  • Your family funeral director may be able to refer you to a local grief counselor in your area.

At this time of year, some funeral directors partner with religious groups to sponsor memorial services for survivors to start the holiday season with a time of reflection, and to honor their departed loved ones. The Community Hospice also offers special bereavement counseling sessions at this time of year.

Another helpful resource for grief support after the death of a child is The Compassionate Friends, a national nonprofit, self-help support organization that offers friendship and understanding to bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings. Founded in 1969, The Compassionate Friends has more than 600 local chapters across the country where regular meetings provide a caring environment for parents to work through their grief with the help of others who have "been there."

To contact them, call: 877-969-0010 or visit their website.

Life is changed forever by the death of one's child, but information, counseling and loving support help to guide parents through the course of mourning. Dr. Bernstein notes "These things are comforting and reassuring, can promote healing and prevent prolonged emotional damage."