Finding Holiday Life after The Death of a Child

My daughter was a lover of all things Christmas. During her many hospital stays, Megan was so grateful for all the flowers and cards, but I will admit Doretta’s whimsical tree with its battery operated lights made my girl’s heart sing. Christmas crazy is in our bloodline, and it all traces back to our Nana who was devoted to making holiday ceramics twelve months a year.

Her crafting didn’t end there. On fall Nebraska game days when the men were cheering the Nebraska Cornhuskers at a home game, I was gleefully parked at Nana’s kitchen table where she and her two sisters introduced me to the world of glue and glitter. Please pass the felt!  It was creative mentorship at its finest in how to make my own holiday happiness. 

Christmas was on our minds year round, and my beautiful Mom took home-made to the next level with the regular purchase of Bucilla felt kits

Sweet Jesus…Fancy!

Sequins topped with little beads were lovingly sewn on jolly Santas and dancing snowmen before they were painstakingly stuffed to perfection. When I became a new mom, traditions advanced when I added the photo ornament spin. The annual ritual of removing the treasures from the Christmas storage box always produced unforgettable chatter between my devoted children, Megan and Ryan. “Remember making this in pre-school?” By the end of my daughter’s life, she was decking the halls with three, count ’em three, elaborate trees, swagged with everything from lights to ornaments to glittery picks.

Ho Ho Ho changed to horrible Christmas Eve of 2006 when the radiologist phoned with the results of Megan’s scan: adrenal cancer had advanced to her lungs. Her condition was grave, and aggressive treatment was scheduled to begin in 38 hours. It was a sobering, “No time to waste,” conversation. My initial reaction was to cancel Christmas, but my Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear of it. I was met with a swift, “Well, you gotta eat…” and I caved to the parental pressure. Let it be known that I had enjoyed my years of cooking for a crowd. My mother-in-law had schooled me well in preparing farm fresh goodness. Nana helped me master The Art of the Perfect Mashed Potato, along with setting an exquisite table, down to the polished silver. I went through the motions that December 25, adhering to all the sacred traditions, but it didn’t change the sadness that loomed. The day was quiet, and I can still hear the sound of forks hitting the plates as we ate in silence.

By the following Christmas, Megan was in Hospice at home. Once again I tried to make merry, but even my best efforts were in vain. My girl lasted but a few minutes at our banquet before excusing herself to her bedroom and another pump of morphine for pain. She died 90 days later.

The initial years that followed were no longer filled with thoughts of Sweet Baby Jesus, but consumed with paralyzing sorrow.  I did put up a tree with the Christopher Radko ornaments that Megan personally collected, but their presence also evoked the visual of the dying girl that slept in their shadow. I was swift to sell them at an estate sale.

Friends were generous and wanted to include me with their families, but a piece of mine was missing and initially it was too painful to watch other’s enjoy themselves. Mom was worried about my Grinchy heart that was growing two sizes too small. 

When I told her how much I liked that year’s sweater ornament, Mom rushed out to buy yarn to knit them in every color and style. She made enough for an entire tree of cuteness, and I did bring in a Douglas Fir that year to display them. Still, my heart was anything but alive, and when Mom passed the following year, the sweater sets remained in storage.

Last year marked the tenth Christmas without Megan, and I felt an overall shift with regards to grief. I had come to a healthy place of acceptance that I was not going to get over it, but had indeed become a stronger person by carrying it. I found a fiber-optic table top tree and made the purchase plunge. Friend Vanessa had given me an adorable felt ornament from her shop which sparked a themed tree with the felt treasures made by my Mom and family in the sixties. It gave me joy. As far as family, my son was stateside last year and took me to a wonderful dinner on Christmas Eve, a treat that allowed me hang up the master chef apron and focus on conversation with him.

This year was an encore Christmas Eve Dinner with Ryan. The best gift was two uninterrupted hours listening to his world travels. I came home to my Boston Terrier, a Netflix line-up of Christmas classics, and a world that made no demands on me except to ‘be.’ Friends were faithful to include me in the hustle and bustle of their celebrations but I declined, not out of sadness, but out of a sense that I was just beginning to build my own new traditions.

This was year 11 without my girl. I found that it’s OK to not get over it, but it’s also OK to get on with something completely new.

Key Notes:

  • It takes a long time to focus on a child’s life, not their death.
  • It is important that you remember your friend’s child that has passed. Compassionate Friends says, “If you mention my child’s name, I may cry, but if you don’t mention his name, it will break my heart.”
  • Traditions are the highest priority until something becomes a higher priority. Megan’s privacy after devastating news should have been my highest priority….not serving the corn casserole.
  • There is a fine line in families between honor and dishonor.  Megan wanted no additional guests in our home her last Christmas. Mom and Dad insisted on coming for the traditional meal for Megan’s last Christmas. No one tells you in advance that doing something for one person can be exactly the wrong thing for another person.

On A Lighter Note:

  • I now enjoy being part of the lives of my friend’s children. However, in return they must look at my portfolio of photos of my Boston Terrier. You can find him on Instagram
  • I’m currently looking for a 1960’s vintage aluminum silver Christmas tree. The very thought of breaking the tradition of a green tree is surely making my ancestors roll over in graves. [I hope it spins, too!]
Vintage Tree Light for Aluminum Tree

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  1. Valerie,

    Thank you for sharing your most amazing memories, traditions and your beautiful daughter with us so freely. I admire your strength and commitment to your well being! Love Linnette

  2. You are an INSPIRATION to so many but more importantly a warm, loving, spirited advocate to two who call you Mom!!! You are AMAZING my friend.
    ❤ Sandy

  3. Beautiful, thoughtful and filled with raw honesty, as always! You have a beautiful way with words, Val…Megan smiles down on you with pride. Much love, my friend!

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Article by: Valerie Bourdain

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