When Christmas Hurts: Coping for those who have lost a child

winter-notre-dame-cemetary-featured-w740x493The Advent and Christmas seasons can be difficult for anyone who has lost a loved one, but uniquely so for those who are mourning the death of an infant through miscarriage. I know because in 1986, in the tender first year of my husband’s and my marriage, I lost our first child on Christmas Day.

Instead of celebrating a warm Christmas dinner with our lively, extended families, my husband rushed me to the ER for a D&C because of severe hemorrhaging and what was to be determined as the death of our child. I was put under general anesthesia quickly for the procedure to stop the bleeding, and when I came out from under, I was sobbing for my little one. What a cruel twist of irony that the season of celebrating God made man, Jesus’ birth, was the time, actually the exact day, that our child was lost.

My husband was as silent as the snow, which was gently falling and dotting the dirty urban landscape of the city, as he drove us home from the hospital. Frozen tears for our child, I thought, peering intently at the soft white flakes swirling outside the car window. Even the grey blue sky seemed to be weeping and cold. I was empty in every sense of the word, and wished desperately that the whole thing were just a bad dream. It wasn’t.

I holed up at home for several days following. Home. Home. What was home supposed to be but a respite from the world, but now it was not even that. I rested my body but I could not rest my mind. What if? What if? On the nightstand was the paperwork from the first doctor appointments. “Fill out this birth plan,” the cheery receptionist had told me at my last appointment, except now there wouldn’t be a birth. If I threw the paper away I would have to accept this. I wasn’t ready. And so there the papers sat.

babys-first-christmas-thomasEvery time I passed our extra room I thought of the crib that should have been in it. It would now remain empty. I sat in a living room chair holding a “baby’s first Christmas” ornament my mother had sweetly given me earlier that month in anticipation of her first grandchild. “I know he’s not born yet but he exists and this really is his first Christmas,” she had said. And it was. But then he wasn’t.

Weeks after Christmas I still hadn’t put away the red and green quilted stocking I had begun to hand sew for the child we would never hold. Little things like a doctor appointment reminder that came in the mail, finding the old ultrasound in a drawer, or innocent questions from acquaintances who knew I was pregnant but not that I lost the baby, were taunting, and haunting reminders that this child of ours would never rest in our arms, laugh and find joy in this world. It hurt.

I slipped into the blues. Deeply. I felt dark and empty. Life wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Was this a foreshadowing of what was to come? Would my husband and I ever have children? I went through the motions getting up for work, trying to put on a happy disposition and do my job, but many times I’d excuse myself into the employee bathroom to fight back tears. Grey, Indiana, January skies didn’t help at all, and as January slipped into February, looking back, I wonder if it was depression. And why not? Why wouldn’t it be? This was our child. And he was gone.

When you miscarry a child you mourn the loss of that particular little one and a particular situation of what might have been. You wonder if you could have done anything to prevent it. You might be angry. You might wonder if God is mad at you or trying to teach you something. And there is just plain, raw sorrow sometimes expected, and sometimes seething out and bubbling over when you least expect it, like frothy, burnt milk in an overheated pan. There is also fear. “Can it happen again? Should we take the risk to try?”

And there are comments. Well meaning people often say to a couple that has lost a child things like, “At least you can try again” (Yes, but we wanted THIS child). “You’re young” (Irrelevant). Or “It’s all for the best” or “It wasn’t meant to be” (Seriously? It’s better our child is dead?). The comments hurt.

Compassion also exists, though, and for this we should be grateful. The kindest gesture I received was when my father-in-law showed up at my door one afternoon and didn’t offer platitudes or advice. He gave me a long hug, put a paper bag filled fruit and chocolate in my hands and looked me square in the eye. “I’m sorry, Therese,” he simply said, “Here, I thought you might like these.” Strangely and soothingly it was the perfect response.

According to statistics from Stanford University, approximately twenty-five percent of all women experience at least one miscarriage in their lives. Early infant loss to disease adds more families pained. These are a lot of people affected and Christmastime has the potential to be difficult for many of them.

If you have recently suffered a miscarriage and wonder how you will get through the holiday season this year without falling apart (or know someone who has) here are some tips to help:

Acknowledge this is a difficult time.

Suffering the loss of your child through miscarriage is incredibly hard, and the first Christmas afterwards can be the most difficult. Christmas is supposed to be a joyous occasion, and most people have expectation of cheerfulness from others. You may not feel like Christmas holds its magic anymore. You may have difficulty concentrating on “the reason for the season.” This is normal. Acknowledge this is a difficult time and be patient with yourself as you grieve. This too shall pass.

If your miscarriage is very recent, you may be dealing with hormone surges on top of grief. This is like riding a wild stallion on unfamiliar, rocky terrain in the dark…when you thought you were only getting on a pony on a well-lit trail. Hang on tight, expect bumps, and wait for the physical effects to calm. They will.

Don’t be afraid to seek medical help if new physical symptoms appear (hives from stress for example) or mental health assistance if your feelings of sadness are persistent, overwhelming or interfere with your daily life. Some women find comfort in talking with others about their shared experience of miscarriage. This can be with a friend, or your doctor may suggest a support group during this time of adjustment if you want a more thorough and formal atmosphere.

Go Easy on Yourself

If you are struggling after a miscarriage loss this Advent and Christmas season, be patient with yourself. It is normal to have mixed emotions—you can be joyful to be with family and friends one moment but driven to tears the next. Take a hot bath. Make yourself some soothing tea. Read a light book. Watch an old movie. Take a walk and admire God’s creation. Breathe the fresh air deeply. Do something with your hands like bake cookies, sew a potpourri sachet gift for a loved one, write out meaningful notes in a card to someone you love. Reach other to others. Acts of service are a calming balm to a sorrowful heart.

Expect the unexpected during this time. A simple glimpse at the crèche in the beautifully lit church as the organ is gently played may bring you to tears. The sight of another’s child, a thoughtless comment by a relative (even said innocently) can bring emotions to the surface again. Accept the emotions. Accept the suffering. Offer it, even as you don’t understand it, to God, who makes all things good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28). Over time, the ferocity of these feelings will pass.

Feed Your Marriage

The loss of a child is a loss for both spouses. And different people take different amounts of time to heal. Your spouse may not be on the same timetable as you. He may be experiencing the loss in a different way. Men try to “fix” things and your husband may throw himself into activities to alleviate his pain. A woman may perceive that as insensitive, even though it is not. Understanding that men and women often respond differently to loss will help both the husband and wife cope individually and as a couple.

To feed your marriage during this time find a shared activity to do together, whether it’s last minute Christmas shopping, ice skating or watching White Christmas with a big bowl of popcorn. Don’t shy away from physical contact during this time. You both need it. Snuggling close while you sip hot chocolate and work on a crossword puzzle or watch a sports event on television (let him pick an activity he likes) offers opportunity for quiet bonding and comfort for you both. Following his lead and praying together brings peace.

Anticipate Situations That May be Problematic and Avoid Them

Don’t try to be a super hero. If you know a situation is going to be a struggle for you and you are not confident you can meet the situation successfully, opt out or lay low. In my extended family, Christmas Eve is often the time couples announce pregnancies since most of the family is gathered together then. It would be very difficult for someone recently experiencing miscarriage to come to this scene at Christmastime. Some people cope just fine. Others need space. Neither is right nor wrong. Do what works for you.

While you may be genuinely happy for a newly expectant couple, you may also be surprised to feel waves of conflict and sadness. Ride the surge and ask God to help you congratulate the two of them heartily and sincerely. Every life is a blessing, and no new life dilutes the beauty and value of another one lost. Be gracious, even in your suffering.

Christmas is the birthday of Jesus and while you have aching arms for the loss of your child, remember that Our Lady knows your pain. Ask her intercession to help you cope with your suffering. She later lost her Child too. Meditating on the Mysteries of the Rosary helps focus things.

My life thus far, like most, has been mixed with sorrow and joy. I have lost a total of five children to miscarriage. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them all, and wonder what might have been. However, my husband and I also have been incredibly blessed with nine live births, six daughters and three sons. God is good. All the time.

What I would like to conclude with is this, as we enter into this Christmas season and you are perhaps still reeling from your loss:

Your heart will heal.

It takes time but it will. While at first you will think about your lost child almost constantly, in a tormented kind of way, gradually over time you will find longer spaces of time where you experience peace and even joy again. Do not feel guilty for this. You will never forget your miscarried baby, and you should not. You will remember things like his little heartbeat on a Doppler device, recalling the soft gentle thumping sound years after your miscarriage occurred. Instead of searing pain, you will eventually feel gratitude for the life that was.

Your child is with a benevolent God who loves him even more than you and your husband do. Your child never knew sin, or sorrow, or evil. That is a blessing. Find deep comfort in this and in that because of your and your husband’s openness to life, this child, your child, will have eternal life and perfect happiness. Pray for your little one’s intercession in your lives and prayers. And have peace and joy, because of this. It’s going to be all right. Jesus loves you. He came for you in your happiness and in your suffering, as a little baby just like yours…And that’s Christmas.

“For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.”
(Psalm 139:13)

“Cast your burden upon the LORD and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.”
(Psalm 55:22)

“Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
(Psalm 30:5).


Read what the Church teaches about the salvation of miscarried children at Catholic Miscarriage Support.

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