How I’m Re-Learning the Holidays After My Daughter’s Death

This December 2nd would have been my youngest daughter’s 10th birthday. Seeing the date — even as an expiration date “Dec 2” stamped on the milk in the fridge —  is always a painful reminder that my daughters and I will not be singing Happy Birthday to Cora. We won’t be celebrating her birthday. In fact, now December 2 simply marks the second day in a month full of festive celebrations for my family — Advent, Hanukkah and Christmas. It’s a month in which, despite the joy lurking in shop windows and holiday movies, I am still grieving.

And so are my kids. This holiday season will mark the fifth year my youngest daughter is missing; she died of complications following a heart transplant in September 2015. While I know my family is not alone in having a gaping, empty space at our holiday table, it sometimes feels that way — which means helping my kids navigate a month full of ho-ho-hos and Santas on every corner can feel challenging. 

“Any possible advice which offers the appearance of a correct ‘answer’ stands in stark contrast to the messy and complicated intermingling of feelings around the holiday season,” pediatrician and Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist Claudia M. Gold, MD tells SheKnows. “It will inevitably be a confusing time. Giving yourself permission to fully experience the disorganizing moments of grief, whenever they arise and however painful they may be, can create space for subsequent moments of genuine joy, connection, and hope.”

This advice makes good sense to me. My kids and I have already baked and decorated a double batch of sugar cookies (I have millions of tiny sprinkles still stuck to the bottoms of my feet to prove it). But the Elf on the Shelf did not arrive on time and I’ve yet to purchase an Advent calendar. Plus, we’ve already had our first snow (which will make cutting a tree just a bit more frightful, er, I mean festive).

There will forever be an empty seat at my table going forward — during the holidays and every single day. Yet I am firm in my conviction that my daughters won’t grow up in a house where the holidays are synonymous with grief.

Courtesy of Hannah Van Sickle.

Jennifer Deuble, a child life specialist with the Palliative Care Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, points to gratitude and joy as paving the way during tough times like these. “When we are thankful, it shifts our sadness and anger, [which] hopefully rises to joy,” Deuble told SheKnows. Which is why she recommends finding things to be thankful for.

“What makes us laugh or experience joy [become] positive diversions to help us cope,” she suggests. A jar full of silly activities to do as a family (think pancakes and pajamas at dinner), or something as simple as fresh air and playing board games together, become healthy ways to shift the energy. And for the parents, Deuble emphasizes self-care and nurturing ourselves. “Homemade essential oil roller balls, smudging or cleansing rooms, [reciting] prayers/mantras,” are all simple steps. As is finding humor in what makes you want to cry.

As to my strategy for how to proceed? I plan to be more patient than usual with myself  this month — which, IMHO, is a good way to navigate the holidays, period. I am also choosing to make space for whatever feelings arise. My daughters and I talk about Cora constantly, no matter how uncomfortable it makes others. Sometimes, our memories are accompanied by laughter when we remember the time Cora sang ‘Let It Go’ and used an old, greasy corn cob off the dinner table as her microphone. Other times, the memories are accompanied by tears when we run across one of Cora’s errant belongings — the tiny Milrinone backpack, for instance, that fueled her broken heart through a pump-infused central line for eight months, or her favorite dog-eared copy of A Day In The Life of Murphy. In these moments, her absence feels incredibly profound. 

Hannah Van Sickle daughters
Image: Courtesy of Hannah Van Sickle.

And then there are the terribly raw moments for which I’m never fully prepared.

“Don’t you sometimes wish Cora hadn’t been born with a special heart?” my middle daughter wants to know. Except she is terribly confused at how she can still be the “middle” child without a little sister to look after. And my response to her, every single time she asks, is always the same.

“No,” I tell her. “I’m glad Cora had a special heart. Because that, I am entirely certain, is what made her who she was. And that I would never want to change.” 

This candid response — which I hope will inspire my daughters to embrace the tumultuous path life inevitably unfurls for us — does not mean I don’t miss Cora. Or that I do not wish she was still here. It simply means things have changed, and I do have a choice. So I choose to move forward, putting one foot in front of the other. No matter how excruciating it might feel. 

None of this, I assure you, is synonymous with forgetting. I think of Cora every single day. Come December, in particular, I choose to embrace the return to light that shines in myriad ways: from the glow of a neighbor’s menorah and the old-school bulbs on our Christmas tree to the very real and lengthening days that come following the winter solstice. I hold space for my disappointment, too. My kids continue to hang Cora’s quilted Christmas stocking — graced with a delicate ice-skater wearing a fringed scarf and matching mittens — on the wooden banister next to theirs. This, more than anything else, makes me wince. Don’t get me wrong — it makes a great hiding spot for the Elf on the Shelf. But Cora’s stocking won’t hold any chocolate and clementines, trinkets and toys come Christmas morning.

Is this depressing? No. I have simply chosen to keep moving forward. Unapologetically and without regret. And when the “bah humbug” days do dawn, which they inevitably will, I’m going to be mindful of the joy in being alive, having hope and cultivating connection — during the holidays and every day.

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