Holidays are hard. And Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a major holiday season where we are expected to give thanks and feel joy and gratefulness for our lives and everything this past year brought to our lives.
Disclaimer: While I do believe our babies brought us gifts when they were here, this post is not going to mention anything about how you should look for them or feel a certain optimism or positivity about it. This is a true account of my own experience of my first Thanksgiving after my twins were stillborn at 32 weeks, and the advice I have given to others since then about what I've learned.
As I am writing this I'm looking out my window at the first Buffalo, NY snowstorm of the season and remembering the week before Thanksgiving the year my girls were born. At 29 years old I planned and hosted a funeral for my babies on November 10th. Just 10 days later I was sitting at my sister-in-law's house for Thanksgiving dinner feeling devastation like none I had ever felt in my life.
We have a big family and all live close to each other so holidays are a big celebration with lots of people and all the traditions and since we are close in proximity it isn't unusual for us all to be together at once or travel to one house for dinner and another for dessert later.
I was still recovering from a C-section that was the end result of a 3-day induction. I had always produced a lot of milk to breastfeed my older boys so this time was no different and my milk was coming in and leaking out by the buckets. I was beyond exhausted and numb from disbelief and grief and was using every ounce of energy I could muster to get up in the morning to take care of my boys who were 5 and 2. Showering and getting dressed was a huge undertaking and I had to force myself to do it.
Here comes the holiday...I told my husband I didn't want to go. I told my mother and mother-in-law I wasn't coming. I just couldn't imagine being anywhere but in my own house (and pajamas) this soon. Then it began...all in love and because they truly want what's best for me. "
You should come...it would feel good for you to be with family", "You need to get back to doing normal things again", "You have to get out sometime- it may as well be now", "Its only family, it will be OK" "You wouldn't want your boys to miss out on a holiday would you?", and I could probably list at least 20 more...
Because they thought it would be best for me AND because selfishly they wanted things to be "normal" again for them too. In their defense, they too were grieving the loss of their newest family members and lost all of their own dreams about what they would bring to their lives. I know that their hearts were broken too but their default was to get back to life as usual as quickly as possible, and what better time than to move forward with the rich traditions the Thanksgiving holiday brings?
So being the people pleaser I am I agreed to go. I couldn't stand to have anyone be disappointed in me for any reason, and lord help me if they might think I'm being selfish by only doing what I wanted and denying my children of a memory or family experience. I would choose others' happiness and contentment over my own anytime. Even if it damaged me long term.
I woke up that Thanksgiving Day feeling incredibly thankless. I did enjoy my annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade watching and snuggling with my boys by the fireplace but then I had to find clothes that fit me that preferably weren't maternity, shower, get ready and go. My husband helped get the kids ready and was praying I would be able to just go and make this happen because he was sure it might be our first step to "back to normal".
As I sat there I fought back tears the entire time. No one knew whether to talk about it or not so they didn't. While everyone tried to think of things to be grateful for and lovingly pointed out all the things I had in my life to be thankful for, all I could think of was how much I didn't want to be in my body at that moment.
I looked around and thought "Don't they know I am dead inside?" "Don't they realize my life is over, I will never be happy again?" "How can they expect me to feel grateful for my life, I hate it right now?" "Did everyone just forget what happened and what we've gone through?".
It was devastating...I was surrounded by those I love the most and I felt more unseen and unheard than I ever have in my whole life it sent the message to me that my feelings aren't valid and my grief is insignificant. And it was ALL ME. None of them thought that at all, quite the opposite, but it was too soon for me to be in that position. I was too raw, too vulnerable, too beat up, and too tired to be there. I knew it. But I was too afraid to listen and follow what my body and mind were telling me.
I carried that damage with me for years and it eroded my self-confidence. I hated my body for failing me, I felt like I was overly emotional because I couldn't get past my grief so stuffed the feelings down and choked back my tears every chance I could get. People told me how strong I was and I wore it like a badge of honor even though inside I was broken and felt worthless and damaged.
So here are 5 things I need you to know as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday:
Listen to yourself- tap into your intuition and make decisions accordingly. Your body will tell you everything you need to know in order to care for yourself. Talk to your husband or partner and let them know what you need. Be honest about what you are willing and not willing to do.
Be willing to decline invitations for gatherings if it doesn't feel right. If you feel comforted being with others and want to go then do that. But if the thought of being in a sea of happy people who don't understand how you're feeling is hard for you then be willing to say no and not feel guilty. You can always negotiate a certain amount of time you are willing to go too if that feels right. Don't make decisions according to what others feel is right for you.
Find special items to symbolize your baby. We have two small pumpkins with the girls' names on them for the table. Maybe find some special candles or flowers that are meaningful. Get creative and bring them into your space. Say their names and talk about them. It is the only way we will stop the stigma of keeping it silent.
Create new traditions. This is a time to create some new ways of doing things because your life is different than it was, and you have a new outlook on it. This is a time for you to create or recreate some traditions that are meaningful to you and your family.
Talk to someone who has lived it. There is no substitute for talking to someone who has walked this journey and can guide you. It is likely that those you are expected to see on Thanksgiving have no idea what you are truly feeling so can't see things from your perspective even though they love you and want the best for you. Find someone who is objective and can help you through the process of integrating your old life with your new one.
If this holiday finds you feeling anything BUT Thankful let it be and accept that possibly next year may be better. Don't feel guilty for it and give yourself the grace and time to heal in your own way without the pressure of the outside world telling you how to feel.
Jennifer Senn is a grief coach for parents of stillborn babies. She is the founder of Navigating Baby Loss, the host of a podcast by the same name, and a speaker. She can be contacted at email@example.com.