By Guest Blogger Cheri M. Timmons, LCSW (Heartstrings®, Inc.)

The holidays are considered a time of excitement and joy. But for families whose lives have changed through loss, this season can be filled with sadness, anxiety and lost hope.

At any time, the death of a child is a traumatic loss that alters everything in life for a parent. And when the holidays come into view, grieving parents are faced with the question: Is it possible for grief and joy to coexist?

The holidays can feel overwhelming for a grieving parent. Although no simple guidelines exist that will remove the intense pain, the following may serve as a roadmap to help parents cope with their grief during a time of year that is joyous, as well as painful.

Understand Your Grief Reactions

It was once thought that grief progressed in stages. Currently, grief is better understood as a complex process that is unique for each person – even parents of the same child grieve differently.

Following the death of a child, parents experience numerous cognitive, physical and emotional changes. Take time to recognize the changes you are experiencing. A head-to-toe body scan can detect physical changes, while quiet moments can allow emotional and cognitive reactions to break the surface.

Self-Care Strategies for the Holidays

Although it may feel difficult to tend to your own needs at this time, focusing on the basics can increase your resilience during the holidays.

Food – choose water or unsweetened iced tea to wet your whistle. Reduce sugar intake with more vegetables, protein and legumes.

Rest – grief is emotionally draining and the holidays can demand even more from you. To improve sleep at night take a warm bath, play relaxing music or place a lavender scented cotton ball inside your pillow case to take advantage of this herb’s relaxing qualities.

Activity – being active can help decrease stress and other grief symptoms. Take a walk at a nearby park, climb the stairs, do yoga, or park at the farthest end of the lot.

Journal – whether handwritten or on your iPad, journaling provides a private space to express your thoughts and feelings. Also consider expressing your emotions as a sketches or paintings.

Avoid making major decisions alone – following the death of a child, many decisions are necessary. Consider engaging close family or friends to support you in making such choices.

Remembering Your Child at the Holidays

When someone we love dies memories of them can become a gift. Remember your child by including his or her name in your holiday conversations. Invite family members and friends to share joyful stories about your child from past holiday celebrations. This may develop into a new holiday tradition as a way to honor the love and lives of those who have passed away.

Give yourself permission to create new traditions that are more realistic or comforting. Consider new traditions such as making a special ornament, donating to a needy child or special cause in your son or daughter’s name.

Connect with Others

It can be helpful to connect with other grieving moms and dads. Make connections with other parents who have lost a pregnancy, infant or child. Strong bonds can develop with those who mutually understand, validate and support your loss, carrying you forward in your healing.

Organizations in your community may offer resources specific to parents of child loss. Heartstrings®, Inc., a Triad non-profit organization, offers peer-based support programs connecting parents for grief support, bereavement education and encouragement following the loss of a pregnancy, infant or child.

As you navigate this holiday season, remember it does not have to be perfect. It will look and feel very different because your loved one is not there with you. Take time to grieve, take time to find joy and take time to honor the life and love of your precious child. There are several upcoming events that offer an opportunity to honor your child:

Holiday Remembrance Tree:

To help honor your dear one this holiday, Heartstrings, in collaboration with Triad Moms on Main and sponsored by Ward Black Law, will provide a special event for Triad families. For a second year, Heartstrings will host its Holiday Remembrance Tree, beginning December 1st through New Year’s Day in the Greensboro Cultural Center Atrium.

Participants may contribute an ornament of their choice or receive a personalized dove ornament as a gift from Heartstrings for a donation of $10 or more. All individual and personalized ornaments will be displayed on the tree throughout the season. (Click here to contribute an ornament.)  A special tree decorating ceremony and Service of Remembrance and Reflection will be held Monday, December 8th at 6pm. We hope that you will join us to remember your loved ones in this special way this holiday season and connect with other families in their grief and joy.

Parade of Hope:

Honoring the Spirit of Our Children: To enable families to celebrate the lives of their children alongside friends, neighbors, first responders, teachers, and schoolmates, a special celebration of life and community will be held in downtown Winston-Salem on August 8, 2015.

*Sponsored by Heartstrings