There is no time of year steeped so deeply in sensory stimulation quite like the month of December. The colourful lights, the catchy carols and, of course, the family gatherings.
Christmas, and the surrounding holidays, are wrapped in ritual and tradition, but nothing can turn all that joy on its head faster than trauma and grief. The holiday season is often the most difficult season for those facing it in the overwhelming absence of a loved one.
“When memories come up they can serve as constant reminders of people’s losses and watching people celebrate the season while they are suffering can be a very painful and overwhelming experience,” said Marcus Cheung with Calgary Counselling Centre.
Calgarians Cathy and Ryan Decker lost their 13-month-old daughter Avery just a few months after she celebrated her first Christmas. She died suddenly in her sleep while at a day home. Her death is unexplained.
The Deckers told Global News that facing Christmas without their little girl was an impossible task.
“We tried to ignore it we didn’t want to participate, we didn’t want the presents, we didn’t want other kids around, it was just way too painful for us,” said Cathy Decker.
Instead, the couple headed to the mountains alone.
“We brought her picture with us, we set it up on the table so it felt like she was enjoying Christmas dinner with us. We lit a candle with her name on it…. We cried and cried.”
“During the most happiest times you want to share it will all your loved ones. When such a crucial piece is missing it definitely stings even more,” said Ryan.
Loss is also difficult to navigate for bereaved children who are yearning for a sense of normalcy and what their families used to be.
“There may be moments where we do need to say no to certain outside invitations and yes to self-care,” said Nadine Gariepy-Fisk, director of the Children’s Grief Centre in Calgary.
“But we need to be mindful of who it serves, what’s the cost of saying no to those things in the short term and the long term.”
Gariepy-Fisk said communication with both children and other family members is extremely important and while you may not continue some traditions this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t next time around.
“We recommend the three C’s- communication, connection and care; what are our concerns, what do we want and what do we really not want,” said Gariepy-Fisk. “Can we do some things the same and some things different, maybe find a middle ground.”
Ryan Decker said while he appreciates that it can be difficult to find the right words to comfort a bereaved family during the holiday season, saying nothing can often be worse.
“Just be there, listen, even a simple ‘we are thinking about you’ and don’t ever be afraid to say the loved one’s name — we love hearing our daughter’s name,” he said.
The couple now have two more children. They’ve been determined to give their daughter and son the same joyous Christmas they once knew. The family has created precious ways to include their firstborn Avery Violet. They hang purple ornaments and her stocking and they light a candle in her honour at Christmas dinner.
“We light it with the flame symbolizing that her light is still here with us,” said Cathy.
While their pain will never subside, they have found a way to let that light shine around it for all their children.