By Mandy Hitchcock, contributor to the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit mental health and wellness center for women and mothers in New York City.
Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays. The songs, the twinkly lights, the spirit of kindness that seemed to flow so easily -- I loved it all. And when my first child, my daughter Hudson, was born just a few weeks before Christmas, it only added more enchantment to an already magical time. But we enjoyed the magic of that holiday with her only twice.
In the spring of 2010, when she was just 17-months-old, Hudson died of a sudden, severe infection. Our first Christmas without her was one of the darkest times of my life. For the first time in my life, I did not spend it with my family. I could not bear the thought of sitting through our family's ritual of opening gifts one at a time, in order from oldest to youngest, only to face a glaring absence each time it would have been Hudson's turn as the youngest of all her cousins. My husband and I fled to Paris on Christmas Eve, hoping to outrun our terrible grief, even if only for a few days.
It didn't work. Grief followed us to Paris, just as it follows us today, five and a half years later. We could fly to the moon, and still we'd never outrun our grief.
For parents who have lost a child, the holidays are one of the hardest times of every year. Beginning with Halloween and continuing through New Year's, we face an onslaught of family togetherness and joy, much of it centered around children. From the merchandising in stores and the advertising in magazines and online to the photos on friends' Facebook pages and holiday cards, we constantly see images of that most precious thing we will never have again: a family that is complete and whole.
In the beginning, I found that dreading the special days during the year -- the holidays, Hudson's birthday, the anniversary of her death -- was much worse than the actual days. Her looming absence filled every day, so the special days were no different than any other day. They might have even been a little easier because friends and family would often remember her with us on those days.
But now, as our lives and family have continued to grow around the hole that Hudson's death left, I find that these special days are often far worse than I expect them to be.
Each year, when I design our holiday cards, I stare at the photos from the past year, longing to find her face in them. And then I resign myself to placing the same photo of her on the back of the card that I did the year before -- the one of her at one-year-old, giggling and pointing at the camera and wearing a red Christmas dress with black Scotties embroidered on it.
When we decorate the tree together, we must settle for hanging small, framed photos of her on several branches, instead of enjoying a living, breathing little girl fighting with her younger siblings over who will get to hang which ornaments where.
We take those younger siblings to sit on Santa's lap, and I try hard to enjoy the moment, holding in my grief until I am alone and can allow myself to imagine a gangly young girl just turned 7, trying hard to get her little sister to smile for the camera. And of course, when opening gifts on Christmas morning, we face that vast gulf each time we reach the spot where she should take her turn unwrapping a gift, after me and before her younger brother.
But what I have also come to understand is that if I cannot have her back -- and even now, in some moments, it is hard to believe that I can't -- I'm grateful for these holiday moments when my rawest grief is exposed again. As the years pass, my grief is my most powerful link to her because it is also a reflection of my bottomless love. I welcome the pain because it is an echo of the joy I experienced as her mother for seventeen months and twelve days.
What I want others to understand is that no matter how many years pass, that beautiful face will always be missing from the family photo on our Christmas card. No matter how many children we have, I will never stop looking for her when it's time to decorate the tree or open gifts. And as grateful as I am that my love of Christmas is still inside me, there are moments (sometimes whole days) during the holidays when I am just going through the motions for the sake of my younger kids.
I want my friends and family to remember Hudson. It's the wish of all parents who have lost children. To bring them into the present the only way we can -- in our memory and in our actions. So I ask friends that no matter how many Christmases pass, please acknowledge our loss each year. Say her name on Christmas Day. Write on your holiday card that you are still so sorry that she's gone. Let me know that even though it's been so long, and even though it's the most wonderful time of the year, you understand that she is still missing and that we are still hurting.
This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, provider training, research funding and online information and support for women and mothers. You can follow Mandy on Twitter @MandyHitchcock and Seleni @selenidotorg.