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Celebrating the joy of the season while mourning the loss of a child

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The sounds of Christmas ring loud and clear from speakers in stores and malls. Christmas carols announce a season of Joy to the World and tell us that It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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For those mourning the loss of a loved one, it's often difficult to set aside sorrow and embrace joy. Whether your loss is years old or brand new, the hole in your heart left by the absence of a loved one is always present.

Losing a parent, sibling or spouse leaves an absence that nothing ever really fills. The loss of a child is perhaps the cruelest loss of all.

Losing a child goes against the laws of nature. The grief and sorrow is often overwhelming for parents whose child has died.

Parents may turn to The Compassionate Friends and other grief support groups to find comfort and peace among others who understand the depth of their loss.

Well-meaning friends may tell grieving parents that they need to move on and 'get over it.' But the loss of a child isn't something you get over. It's a loss that you carry deep inside every day of your life.

Hobbling through the holidays is all that some parents are emotionally capable of doing. Other parents may try to put on a happy face, especially if there are remaining children or grandchildren.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve a child. There's also no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays after the loss of a child.

You might downscale Christmas or turn to your faith. You might try to make Christmas more meaningful by helping others. You might display favorite photos of your child or you may put away all signs of your child.

However you grieve, your life is forever divided into before and after. Even happy memories can trigger deep sorrow. Even as you move forward with your life, a part of you remains in the past.

The grief process is very personal and has no timeline. You may be laughing with joy one minute and sobbing in sorrow the next.

Each parent may mourn the loss of a child differently. One parent may think about and talk about their child all the time while another may avoid even thinking about their child for fear of falling apart.

The five stages of grief were laid out in 1969 by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist. At that time, Kubler-Ross was working with those who were dying. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

As more research has been done with those who are grieving, some now use a model with seven stages of grief. These include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and acceptance and hope.

Whether the holidays are something to endure or something you embrace, the joy of Christmas can be found in the small moments and memories that make up life.

The laughter of a family gathered together, the anticipation of children on Christmas morning and the joyful feeling of celebrating the birth of Christ may pull you from your sorrow for at least a little while.

Although some parents turn away from God after the loss of a child, others embrace their faith, knowing that God is with them on the long journey of grief.

Allow yourself whatever you need to get through the holidays. If it feels right, do it. Talk with your spouse or with family members or friends about what you are feeling.

Reach out to other parents who have lost a child. Join a local support group or find a support group online. Share your memories of your child with family members and close friends.

The journey from the death of a child to acceptance and hope is a long and winding road. As Christmas approaches, I hold close in my heart the families of our friends Jessica, Andrew, Erik, Aaron, Rachael, Alex, Benjamin and so many others who left us too soon.

May these families and all who have suffered the loss of a loved one find comfort, peace and joy at Christmas and always.

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