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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why didn't Santa come to our house?

Last night I heard something that made me realize how grief affects those around us, especially children.  The holidays being one of those times grief is more prevalent in the people around them.

I was preparing for class, the subject being grief of children, siblings, only child vs. multi-child families, etc.  We were discussing how it affects children, how the birth order plays a role, and just the dynamics of childhood grief.

We were sharing our own life experiences and relating what we may have heard or seen.  There was one story that struck me.  A little girl recently came into class, the other children were talking excitedly about Christmas, and she listened and then said, ‘We are not having Christmas this year.’  ‘See my Daddy died and Santa won’t be coming to our house, and me and my brother aren’t getting any presents.’  ‘We don’t have a Christmas tree or anything.’

As I listened, my first reaction was those poor children, and then I felt for the mother, who probably couldn’t find the strength to do any of it.  The mom was more than likely feeling very little joy and happiness at this time of year.  The other aspect that came to mind was the societal piece.  Some cultures feel that the more austere your surroundings, the more somber the home, etc., that the bereaved family is truly respecting their dead, that it is only right.

Death is a natural part of our lives, we are born, and eventually we die.  Look around you, leaves fall off trees, everything in nature is born and dies, it is the ‘circle of life’ to quote Disney.  Yet in some cultures and societies, it is taboo to discuss death and children are shielded from it.  

But yet, children know so much more than we think.  They have their own way of dealing and coping, and depending on their age, their way of understanding it, as well.  For example, a child came into class, looked at the teacher, and said ‘my cousin lost her baby in her belly.’  The teacher said that the child said it so mater-of-factly that all she could say was ‘oh.’  The key there was that the child mentioned it, named it, and by doing so could move on.  There was nothing to fear, it was said.  ‘Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.’  —  Fred Rogers. 

Children are not oblivious to what is happening around them, they take their cues from the adults in their lives.  Now I look at the situation with that little girl who feels that death is unfair.  She is thinking that because her Daddy died, she can’t have Christmas, she won’t get presents, and when all the children share their holiday stories, she won’t have any.  She will feel alone and isolated.

All too often we are so wrapped up in our own grief that we cannot see beyond it.  This is quite understandable, and it is at this point where family and friends can truly help.  If someone has children, but they do not have the strength or ambition to do anything, someone else can help.

That first Christmas after Rachel died, we decorated.  I have two other children, my daughter was 21, and my son was 14 at the time of their sister’s death.  Yes, they were older, but my husband and I both agreed that the holidays had nothing to do with death.  We also knew that it would not change the fact that our daughter was gone; besides, I have my nieces and nephew who looked forward to Christmas Breakfast at Titi’s house, how could I disappoint!

Unfortunately there are many cultures who put undue demands on the bereaved.  They make the bereaved feel guilty if they decorate, send out greeting cards, etc.  Trust me, I know, I am Portuguese, French, Irish, Italian and Brazilian, with the most prevalent being the Portuguese.  When my daughter died, comments were made, people were appalled that our family put up decorations, sent out greeting cards, and so on.  I guess I was supposed to stop living.

We decorated, we hung Rachel’s stocking, we sent our Christmas cards, signing our names and including Rachel’s.  We continued with our traditions, changing them a little.  In lieu of gifts for Rachel, my family and I made donations in her name, to help those less fortunate.  Rachel’s stocking was filled with candy and small toys for her little cousins.  Each child received a special teddy bear for Christmas, which they were told was a special hug from Rachel.  We not only celebrated the holidays, we made sure Rachel was very much a part of our entire celebration, and we continue to do so every year.

So for those of you who have lost a loved one, yes do what is right for you, by all means, but if there are children involved, please think of them.  They are hurting and missing just like you are, they may not express it like you do, but they feel it.  Don’t worry about what the neighbors will think; they are going to think what they want too anyway.  Worry about those closest to you, think of them first, and do what needs to be done for you and your own family.

Remember nothing you do or don’t do will alter the fact that your loved one died.  Trust me, if it did, I’d be the first in line.  For me, I always think of my daughter, my dad, and all my deceased relatives and what they would want and expect from me.  I know that Rachel and my dad want only the best for all of us.  Rachel loved the holidays, how could I not decorate, she would be mortified if I didn’t go on living, finding joy and happiness in this wonderful season and the memories we created.

Yes, you should do what is right for you, but please look around you.  Are there children in your life?  What memories will they be left with?  How will they perceive the holidays as a result of the death of someone they love?  Will sadness be the only thing they associate with your celebrations?  Is it Christmas’ fault?  Why did Santa stay away, is he afraid of death too?  The children in your life have very active imaginations and believe me; they will come up with their own answers and conclusions.  

If you know someone who is unable to do anything for the children in their lives, by all means, try to help if possible.  The bereaved person may be unable to do so, and may really appreciate the help and concern.  To quote Mr. Rogers further, ‘Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ‘And We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility.  It's easy to say ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem." Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.’ 

The holidays are a time of giving, reaching out, and helping others carry their burdens.  It is a time to look beyond your own needs, to see the needs of others.  There are so many ways to honor and respect your deceased, while still letting children be children.

Blessings! and until we meet again.

Fred Rogers quotes from Good


  1. Rose Mary,

    As always a lovely and thought provoking post from you.

    I agree that our first responsibility has to be towards the children and you are so right when you say they know and understand more than people sometimes realise.

    Although my son is not dealing with bereavement he is dealing with my illness, I decided to be upfront with him and allow him to ask any questions right from the start.
    I'm so glad I did as he knew far more already than I'd actually realised - had I not been honest he would definitely have drawn his own conclusions.

    Children are the future and we must ensure that family traditions are kept, whatever our own circumstances.
    I think it's lovely that you kept things going for your family and for Rachel's memory.
    Giving gifts to less fortunate children in her name is a beautiful idea.


  2. Carole, good to hear from you.

    Yes, children do know more than we often give them credit for. Your approach with you son is always the best, honesty is key. Besides answering any questions he may have had, he also feels he is important, and included in what you are going through.

    And Yes, children are definitely our future, and our mission is to teach them well.

    Thank you, Love Rose Mary xoxox