When Hazel Hatto was just three months, two days old, she died “suddenly and silently” in her sleep. It was August 2014.
Four months later, the world was celebrating the holidays while Hazel’s mother, Gillian Hatto, was grieving.
“The very first Christmas was awful,” she said. “In hindsight, I think that my husband and I wish that we just left and left Christmas behind and did our own thing.”
Instead, she said she felt guilt and obligation to stay with her family.
“I felt like I needed to have a smile on my face,” she said. “All I could think about was grief and Hazel — how much I missed her, how much I wanted her there with us and how she should have been there with us.”
Two years after her daughter’s death, Hatto started Hazel’s Heroes, a group for bereaved parents to heal their broken hearts, honour their children and help others going through the same thing.
After losing Hazel, Hatto was thrilled to have their son Elliott.
Then, a year-and-a-half later, she found out she was pregnant — a little girl they named Lily. But at 22 weeks gestation, they lost the baby. They were once again going through immeasurable loss, leaving holes in the family’s lives, especially during the holidays.
Hatto suggests those who have lost loved ones say no to events, throw out old traditions that no longer fit and take time for themselves.
“I think it’s really important to give yourself permission to grieve, permission to take a break from it all and to say no when you need to,” Hatto said.
Registered psychologist, and owner and director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre, Ashley Mielke knows the pain of going through the holidays without a loved one.
Eight year ago, almost exactly one month before Christmas, her father died by suicide.
“I felt this fog, like everyone else’s life was continuing but mine had stopped,” she said. “I found it really hard to participate emotionally in Christmas that first year.”
Mielke said it’s natural to feel the urge to keep busy during the holidays, but it’s important for people to take time to address their emotions.
“Busyness only serves as a distraction for what we’re really feeling in our hearts,” she said. “Instead of keeping busy it’s important for us to just allow ourselves to be still and to feel the feelings as we are processing them in the moment.”
Mielke also suggested not feeling guilty about saying no to loved ones and friends when they want to spend time during the season.
Mielke put together a list of suggestions for those grieving a loss through the holidays.
Tips to get through:
- Don’t get too busy: Being super active just distracts you, it doesn’t really help you deal with your broken heart
- Maintain normal routines: Adapting to the changes in your life following a death is an enormous adjustment. It’s never a good idea to add a host of other changes while you’re trying to adapt to so much disruption in your life
- Talk about your feelings but don’t expect a quick fix: It’s essential to have someone you trust to talk to about your memories and the feelings they evoke. Ask your friend to just listen to you and not try to fix you. You’re sad not broken, you just need to be heard
- Don’t dwell on your feelings: Telling the same sad story over and over is not helpful. In fact, it can establish and cement a relationship to your pain. It’s better to just make a simple statement of how you feel in the moment
- Don’t isolate yourself: It’s normal to feel lost and alone, but don’t isolate — even if you have to force yourself to be with people and participate in normal activities
- Don’t misuse food or alcohol to cover up or push down your feelings: Food, alcohol and drugs are often used to mask feelings of sadness
- Go through the pain, not under, over or around it: It’s tempting to avoid the pain. Whenever you skirt the pain, all you’re doing is pushing it away temporarily, it will always come back to haunt you
Hatto said it’s also important to know there are a lot of misconceptions around grief.
“Time does change things, but it doesn’t heal,” she said.
She knows that often times people don’t know what to say or do when someone loses a loved one. For her, it’s about not letting her children be forgotten.
She suggests lighting a candle in honour and sending it to those who are grieving. You could also hang a special ornament, make a donation in that person’s name, and most importantly, say and write down their loved one’s name.
“Anytime someone can do something that honours our children and remembers them with us, it just warms our heart,” she said. “Nothing is better for a grieving parent.”