‘The ache in my heart starts around the holidays. I know I am being ‘watched.’ I’m actually afraid everyone will think I have moved on and forgotten my son.’: Bereaved mom navigates grief during the holidays

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of grief which may be upsetting to some.

“The ache in my heart starts beating harder around the holidays. This means, after Halloween, I know I am being ‘watched.’ This may sound really awful to some people, but as far as family and friends go, they are all helping me. Thanksgiving is a holiday when you go around being grateful for what you have. When you have suffered a loss – be it a parent, child, sibling, etc. – this time of year is hard. You walk around with a smile on your face and doubt in your heart. I am grateful for the love, guidance and support my family and friends have given me since my son Alex died. But how can I explain to them I just can’t stop this profound sadness I have for him not being here?

I’m actually a little afraid. Afraid everyone will think my happiness during Thanksgiving means I have moved on and forgotten Alex. Because that’s what many have said. I would eventually ‘move on.’ I have lived through it, I’m just not exactly sure what ‘move on’ means. So secretly I hold onto the memories I have of him while still celebrating the holiday. The family, they WATCH what they say, to make sure not to bring up things that will upset me. So when grandma’s extra stuffing is made and mentioned, I’ll make sure not to say I know we do it every year because it’s all Alex really loved to eat.

Woman stands smiling beside her son who has since passed away
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

As I pull the Christmas ornaments out, my heart starts racing a bit. I’m sure within a few moments I will find one. Yes, there’s one. The funny reindeer made from popsicle sticks. That’s from kindergarten. He had a lot of help making that one from Mrs. Tash.

Reindeer ornament made out of popsicle sticks woman's late son made when he was a little kid
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

I rummage through a few more and then I find the one from second grade. A simple paint stirring stick, but with the help and idea from his teacher, the whole class turned them into Santa Claus. I wonder as I go through the ornaments, does every parent do this? Does Christmas become a mixture of love and gratefulness, and at the same time, heartache and anticipation?

Snowman made out of popsicle stick woman's late son made when he was little
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

You see, as I put the tree up, I am finding all of Alex’s ornaments (along with my other children’s) they made while in elementary school. And if you are the ‘good’ mom, you don’t throw them away. I have macaroni necklaces and sea shell bracelets. I have tiny bowls made from clay and tiny figurines bought from The Santa Shop. I have smooth stones made into a pin and a bracelet Alex made from his Rock Rolling kit he asked for one year. Each of his gifts brings me close to tears as I touch them and remember as they were gifted to me.

There are no rules or special things I can say or do to get through what I have nicknamed HOLIDAY GRIEF. I do everything and anything to get through the days. I can say with all honesty that grief never ends. It becomes tolerable. I don’t think of Alex the minute I wake up anymore. That’s not to say during the day he doesn’t come to mind. But in the beginning, the moment I awoke, I remembered. I remembered he was home and safe, planning for school the next day. He had his work clothes cleaned and laid out for later that night. When I went to wake him for school, the moment I saw him and touched his arm, I knew he was gone. Needless to say, he never woke up. My son died at the age of 26. He smoked a joint laced with heroin and died in his sleep. His brain just stopped telling his body to breath.

Husband and wife stand smiling with kids, one of which has since passed away, in home that is decorated for Christmas
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

It took such a long time to get to the point that I didn’t cry. Then it got to where he wasn’t my first waking thought. So, I figured I just wasn’t surviving anymore, I was living. I was learning to live a new life without Alex present in it. And there wasn’t a time frame on this. Because, I have to be honest, I don’t remember when it happened. I do know it was after the first Christmas he wasn’t here. But then, I think the first year after he died, any FIRSTS that occurred was like a smack in the face. The first Mother’s Day, that was hard. Then I felt bad for my husband on the first Father’s Day. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The only other days that were the hardest were his birthday and then, the day he died. Everyone asked if we were doing anything special in honor of Alex on the first anniversary of his death. I refuse, to this day, to call it an anniversary. It is the day our lives changed forever. Anniversaries are for celebrating. So I just call it the day Alex died. I can’t really think of anything else to call it. And it’s not like I’m ever going to forget it. We didn’t do anything. We were too upset remembering what happened on that day.

Young boy smiling for school picture who has passed away
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

The next year is when it became tolerable. I could get through the special days without crying through half of them. And also, life went on around us. We had special events in our family happening that kept me in the present so I didn’t dwell as much on what I was missing. Thinking back on it now, I lost a few friends during this time. I wasn’t much fun to be around and some of them found it very hard to see me in such pain. Some could not handle the fact we had lost a child. They literally were afraid to be with us because they didn’t know what to say, or were not able to tell us the good things that were happening in their lives for they thought it would make it worst for us.

I never blamed them. I understood the loss of Alex affected many people in very different ways. My own husband and I grieved in completely different ways. Where as I chose to celebrate Alex’s life, which kept me from just mourning his loss, Mark found it hard to talk about Alex for a long time. I never questioned him on this, because I knew we were different people and so I expected our grief to be different. I am grateful now that when his name does come up, it doesn’t hurt as much for us. We can actually mention things he did or said that makes us laugh thinking about him.

Father holds up son who has since passed away to put star on Christmas tree
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

I did start a tradition with my kids that I didn’t stop just because Alex passed away. Every year I buy them a new ornament. And since Alex isn’t here, I think my family thought I would stop; with his at least. But it hasn’t. Every year I purchase just the right one that fills my heart with joy or really makes me think of him. He may not be here next to us, but his spirit will remain with us during the holidays and so will a fresh new ornament.

This is the one thing I can say makes me smile at Christmas the most. Unwrapping it and hanging it along with the others I accumulated over the years. When my daughter Audra married, I gave her all of her ornaments. When Adam married, I did the same. I guess even though I have the empty nest syndrome going on in this house, I still have his ornaments. And when I go through them and the others he made for me, my heart is so full of love. Memories rush through me of his face full of anticipation when I would unwrap the ones he gave to me.

Baby sits beside presents under Christmas tree who has since passed away
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

This holiday can be so joyous if you let it be. I have figured out that grief is a place of passage. It’s not a place you want to stay in. We go through this ‘place’ and hopefully come out a better person. I know I have. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I am more patient and kind to people. And I have a special understanding of others who have walked in my shoes. I read somewhere the worst pain is to lose a child. I agree. But it doesn’t define who I am or where I go or what I do. That’s my decision to make. And I choose to live. And I live with the fact I lost a child.

Little boy looks up smiling as he sits in red sled and passed away at young age
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

To all of my friends and family that were loving and kind and patient with me during the most deepest, sorrowful filled days of my life; I want to thank you for the sunshine you brought into my days. With your phone calls, your lovely cards that came for no reason. For stopping by and having coffee with me and asking if there was anything you could do to help. The dinners that were made and brought over when I couldn’t get out of bed to even dress myself. Those days have passed, but your kindness will never be forgotten.

Little boy sits on knees by Christmas presents who has grown up and passed away at young age
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

If the time ever comes that you find yourself in my shoes, I will be there for you. This I promise. I will have Alex in my heart and I will help you in whatever way you need. If you get emotional during the holidays, it’s OK. I don’t always cry because I miss Alex. Sometimes I cry because I loved him so much when he was here.”

School Christmas craft with picture of little boy who grew up and died at young age
Courtesy of Terry Killoran

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Terry Killoran of Sterling Heights, Michigan. She has been writing about her grief after losing her son on her blog. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more about Terry’s son here:

‘Hi Mom, I’m home, wake me up for school at 9, ok? I love you.’ I looked right at him. ‘I love you too, Alex. Get some sleep, it’s late.’ Off to bed we both went.

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